Millions of individuals across the country experience lower back pain for a wide variety of reasons. When their back hurts, the first thing that most people do is to reach for a hot or cold compress to help them feel more comfortable. However, there is quite a bit of controversy when it comes to the temperatures that are best for assisting those who are experiencing pain in the lower back.
Common Causes of Lower Back Pain
There are a large number of causes of low back pain. The reason why a person’s back hurts will determine if heat or cold is the most appropriate remedy to help them feel better.
A common reason for people to experience pain in their lower back is muscle strain. This is generally caused by overexertion and often goes away within a few days. With muscle strain, the pain is localized in one area, dull and achy. However, just because it is not particularly serious in most cases does not mean that it does not hurt. A pulled muscle in the back can make standing, walking and other types of movement difficult.
Sciatica is another major cause of back pain, and it can be debilitating in more severe cases. In addition to affecting the lower back, people with this condition may have problems with their legs or feet feeling numb or being difficult to move. Sciatica-related pain is felt on a continual basis, presents as a kind of tingling or burning and does not go away. It is generally contained to one side of the body and can be somewhat alleviated by moving around as opposed to staying still.
Degenerative disc disease in the lower back may affect people in their late teens, and it can cause large amounts of pain in the lower back. This disease generally involves a continual level of tolerable pain with occasional flare ups that may be severe and cause spasms. Luckily, this condition is almost always treated successfully.
Individuals may also experience pain in the lower back from isthmic spondylolisthesis. This is a condition in which a disc in the lower back moves forward onto the area below it. With this, the discomfort moves into the back of the legs and buttocks. It makes the hamstrings tight, and people with isthmic spondylolisthesis will have difficulty touching their toes. They may feel some relief when sitting, and this is particularly true if they are reclining. However, the condition can create tingling, numbness and a feeling of tiredness in the legs if a person has been walking.
Using Heat to Relieve Lower Back Pain
Using a heating pad is a great way to get relief when people are experiencing pain in the low back region. It is effective because heat makes the blood vessels wider, and this helps blood flow in addition to helping the muscles relax. With more blood moving into the area, the back gets an increased supply of nutrients, and harmful elements are removed effectively.
However, people should keep in mind that just using heat is often a temporary measure. Individuals who are experiencing pain on a regular basis should definitely see a doctor and investigate more permanent solutions to help with their back issues.
Using Cold to Relieve Lower Back Pain
In almost all cases, it is better to use heat to help with pain in the lower back, and the reason why is simple. Just as heat widens the blood vessels, cold constricts them. While it does not necessarily make the situation any worse, it is not effective in providing people relief.
The one exception to this rule is when people experience muscle strain in their lower back. In this situation, using ice or some sort of cold compress will provide relief as cold is good for calming the swelling that occurs in any sort of muscle strain. Ice can also be helpful for individuals who have arthritis in their lower back.
Which is Better?
While science tells us the heat is definitely better for temporary relief from lower back pain in most situations, there are other factors at play in how a person benefits from using either ice or heat to calm their discomfort.
The Placebo Effect
While there is definitely some amount of evidence that heat will help to alleviate pain in the lower back to some extent, the amount of relief that a person experiences is largely a product of their mind. When people proactively do something that they think will make them feel better, they tend to believe that the treatment they have chosen is working whether it really is or not. Even though they will tell others that they actually do feel better, the amount of pain that they are experiencing is basically roughly the same. However, their mind tells them that they have done something to provide lower back pain relief, and they tend to feel as if they are actually in less pain.
One great experiment that illustrates this concept took place in a hospital emergency room. Half of the people who came in reporting soreness in the back were given a heating pad, and the other half were given an ice pack to put on their back. In the end, both groups claimed that they felt slightly better after being given some sort of treatment. With this, we can see that the choice between heat therapy and cold therapy is largely individual when it comes to treating lower back pain.
Experiment on Yourself
With this in mind, it is best for people who regularly have pain in their lower back to experiment on themselves and see what makes them feel better. After a period of trying different temperatures and combinations of heating and cold, people will begin to see what their individual body responds to best. By knowing how their body reacts, people can choose the ideal temperature to apply when they begin to feel pain.
While modern science attests to the use of heat to relieve the pain that comes with almost every type of lower back pain, there are some individuals who respond best to icing their lower back when it hurts. It all comes down to people knowing how they respond to different temperatures when they are applied. Even though the benefits that come with using a heat or ice therapy are relatively limited for more severe causes of lower back pain, it can be effective in providing a small amount of relief when a person’s back begins to hurt.