Should You Use Heat or Ice for Upper Back Pain Relief?

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Upper back pain is a condition that almost everyone experiences at one point in their life. With that said, people have become familiar with the different remedies they can try for upper back pain relief from medications to nonoperative interventions like physical therapy and trigger point injections. The application of an ice or heat pack has also been a common practice for alleviating upper back pain. 

But which is the better treatment option for upper back pain: ice or heat? When choosing between the two, you have to consider the cause of the upper back pain and how long you’ve been feeling its symptoms. If the pain is acute and caused by a direct injury, it’s better to use a cold pack first to reduce inflammation in the area. Heat can be applied within a few days after icing the injured area or if you’re suffering from chronic pain. 

Which Is Better: Ice or Heat for Upper Back Pain?  

Upper back pain sufferers sure have it tough. This debilitating condition affects their ability to perform to the best of their abilities and limits their movement in their day-to-day life. So it’s a given that they want to find the best pain management solution that can provide instant relief. 

One of the go-to treatments for upper back pain is heat and cold therapy. It’s a convenient solution since the materials needed for the treatment — a heat or ice pack — can easily be found at home or bought in pharmacies and stores. 

Although using ice and heat therapy looks simple, some people are often confused about how to properly use them and end up applying them for the wrong purposes. There are certain conditions where the application of ice is better than heat and vice versa. 

Understanding How Cold and Heat Therapy for Upper Back Pain Works 

The idea of using temperature therapy for back and muscle pain dates back to ancient times when Greeks and Romans used ice for relaxation and medicinal purposes, and heat for natural pain relief. Interestingly, the early physicians relied on the sun’s rays for heat therapy and some would even use hot stones to treat conditions like arthritis, spinal stenosis, and rheumatism. 

Today, there are various methods for administering heat and cold therapy for pain relief. The most common is the use of a cold compress which can be easily made with a cloth and filling it with ice cubes or dampening it with cold water. You can also simply soak a towel in hot water to make a homemade heat pad.

Generally, an ice pack helps minimize swelling and inflammation that comes from direct injuries. The cold temperature narrows the space inside the blood vessel which reduces blood circulation to the soft tissues. With restricted blood flow, chemicals and other infectious agents that cause inflammation are stopped from going to the injured site which results in decreased pain signals to provide relief. It can also be beneficial in minimizing tissue damage. 

Meanwhile, heat treatments follow the opposite principle of cold therapies. If using an ice pack reduces blood circulation, a hot compress encourages blood flow to aid in muscle recovery and restoration of damaged tissues and joints. It also helps relax tight muscle joints and decreases stiffness to restore function and flexibility. 

How Do You Use Ice and Heat for Upper Back Pain? 

Most cases of upper back pain occur from sudden injuries, accidents, poor posture, and fractures to the spinal cord or thoracic spine. People experience upper back aches differently, with some describing it as a sharp pain, throbbing ache, or uncomfortable muscle tension or stiffness. They may also feel radiating neck pain and discomfort between their shoulder blades. 

Depending on the severity and duration of your symptoms, you can decide whether to use heat or cold therapy for your back pain. Here’s an overview of how to properly use ice and heat therapy for your pain: 

1) Ice for Acute Pain from Upper Back Injuries

Cold therapy is usually the first-line treatment for acute upper back injuries. It’s also used to help reduce muscle strain and soreness after an intense physical workout. In fact, cryotherapy is a common sports medicine practice to help athletes recover from sore muscles and minimize the risk of tissue damage. 

Here are the different ways you can apply ice for your upper or lower back pain: 

  • Ice massage therapy: Using a towel or washcloth filled with ice cubes, you can gently place and rub the makeshift compress over the affected area in your upper back to manage inflammation and pain. You can also use a store-bought cold compress and massage it over the injured site to loosen the muscle knot. 
  • Bag of frozen peas: Another alternative is to use a bag of frozen peas or vegetables. Just make sure not to apply it directly and cover it with a towel before putting them over your skin. 
  • Cold water therapy: You can also directly take a cold shower or immerse yourself in a quick ice bath to lessen muscle soreness and support your recovery from the injury. This is commonly done by athletes after undergoing training sessions or exercising. 

2) Heat for Chronic Upper Back Pain 

You shouldn’t use a heating pad directly after sustaining an injury because it can encourage inflammation and slow healing. The general rule of thumb is to apply a heat pack only once the initial swelling and inflammation have subsided. Applying heat will stimulate blood flow to decrease pain and aches in the affected muscles, tissues, and joints. It’s also used for chronic pain disorders and lingering muscle spasm to provide comfort. 

There are two main types of heat therapy that you can use for upper back pain relief: 

  • Dry heat: This basically refers to the application of heating pads, dry heat packs, gel packs, and heat wraps. This type of therapy is easy to use and provides heat quickly for immediate upper back pain relief. 
  • Moist heat: Some common examples of moist heat are hot or steamed towels, moist heat packs, and hot baths. This can be more effective than dry heat since it can deliver heat deeper into the tissues and muscles for faster pain relief and comfort. 

What You Need To Remember When Using Heat or Cold for Upper Back Pain 

There are certain reminders you need to follow in order to ensure the safe application of ice or heat therapy for your upper back pain. Here’s an overview of the best practices for using temperature therapy: 

1) Timing of Application

When you have an acute injury, it’s best to apply ice during its inflammatory phase which can last for at least 48 to 72 hours. This will reduce the swelling and disrupt the pain signals to help you get relief. As soon as the inflammation goes down, you can apply a heating pad to promote blood flow to your tight muscles and joints which will decrease pain and restore your range of motion.

2) Frequency of Use 

You can apply ice for upper and lower back pain multiple times a day after sustaining an injury. Generally, you can place them over the affected area for at least 15 to 20 minutes followed by several hours of break to avoid ice burns.

For heat therapy, the frequency and duration of use will depend on the type and severity of your condition. If you have lingering muscle tension after icing the area, you can apply a hot pack for about 15 to 20 minutes, while you may need to leave it on for up to 30 minutes if you’re managing severe or chronic upper back pain symptoms.

3) Method of Application 

You should never apply ice directly to the skin or massage them over the bony portion of the thoracic spine. It’s always best to wrap the cubes in a towel or cloth to protect your skin and reduce the risk of ice burns. The same goes for applying heat therapy—always wrap the pack in a towel before placing it on the skin. If you’re using an electric heat pad, start on the lowest setting and slowly increase it if needed.

Why Alternate Between Ice and Heat for Upper Back Pain? 

It’s common practice to use ice first for acute injuries or after exercising since this lowers the body’s temperature and helps constrict the blood vessels. This results in reduced inflammation and provides a numbing effect to minimize the pain.

But ice therapy can’t provide lasting relief and restore muscle function and mobility on its own. Switching to heat therapy improves your range of motion and flexibility since it helps improve blood circulation and delivers the necessary healing nutrients to the injured area. You can try applying heat for at least 15 to 20 minutes, then after several hours, you can use ice packs for 10 to 15 minutes for optimal recovery.

What to Do For Upper and Middle Back Pain When Ice or Heat Don’t Work? 

If your upper, middle, or low back pain persists after applying heat and ice therapy, you should consult with a doctor immediately. In these cases, it might mean that you have an underlying condition that can’t be remedied by temperature treatment alone.

A back pain specialist can help provide an accurate diagnosis of your condition and provide a personalized treatment plan that will address the cause of your pain and manage your symptoms.

Your treatment may include taking pain medications, receiving epidural steroid injections, spinal manipulation, physical therapy, and chiropractic care. Minimally invasive spine treatment or surgery may also be an option if other treatments aren’t effective for your symptoms.

Get Safe and Effective Upper Back Pain Treatments at Gramercy Pain Center 

Heat and ice therapies are convenient remedies for upper back and neck pain relief. But if you have persistent discomfort, you may benefit from having a consultation with a back pain specialist. They can perform the necessary exams to assess your condition and provide an appropriate treatment plan.

Gramercy Pain Center is a trusted pain management clinic offering quality care and treatment to patients suffering from chronic back pain. With our state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, we can conduct a variety of minimally invasive procedures to help reduce your pain and restore your quality of life. Call us now to book a consultation with one of our doctors or fill out the form on our website.

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