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Which is Best for Treating Back Pain: Heat or Cold?

Which is Best for Treating Back Pain: Heat or Cold?

Coffee or tea?  Pepsi or Coke? Paris or Rome?  Blonde or brunette?  One lump or two?  The answers to some questions seem to boil down to personal preference.  Others are more matter-of-fact.  When it comes to the ages-old debate over whether heat or cold is better for treating back pain, the answer seems to differ depending on who you ask.

The truth is that both temperature extremes can be useful for obtaining upper and lower back pain relief.  To understand why, let’s look at the cause of chronic back pain.  Whether it’s an injury, a spinal misalignment, or other problem, something causes back muscles to spasm.  This signals the brain to reduce blood flow to the injured area to prevent swelling.  This in turn causes additional pain, since less oxygen is reaching that part of the body.  The additional pain causes more spasms, which causes more pain, which reduces blood flow, and on and on it goes.  This vicious cycle is the underlying reason for chronic back pain.

Breaking this pattern is crucial to obtaining natural back pain relief.  That’s where both heat and cold become useful.  Cold numbs the nerves, preventing pain signals from reaching the brain.  In turn, the brain allows blood and oxygen to flow to the area, which helps it to heal.  Heat, on the other hand, relaxes the muscles; this reduces spasms and increases blood flow, which also warms the muscles and relaxes them further.  This is why both heat and cold are such effective ways of treating back pain.

So the answer to the question of whether to use heat or cold is to try both.  Most experts recommend applying cold for several minutes, then switching to heat.  Experts also recommend using moist heat when possible, and be careful not to let the skin become frostbitten or burned.