You’re working in your garden or around the house when you feel something “pull” in your back. “It’s probably just a muscle pain,” you think and you go for all the things that will add some heat to those muscles.
You might try a long, hot bath or applying a heating pad or ointments that cause the muscles to increase in temperature.
At the same time, you try taking over-the-counter medications to alleviate the pain and inflammation.
This is the typical scenario of a patient that enters our office complaining of severe neck or back pain.
Something that started as “no big deal” a few days ago has been growing increasingly worse with the application of heat.
Strangely enough, it’s while the heat is applied that they actually feel their best. It is often the only time that the symptoms seem to subside at all. However, when dealing with the spine, you also have to take into consideration the spinal discs. The discs will respond to heat by swelling, which will only increase the pain.
Muscles do respond favorably to heat, giving that “aaaahhhh” feeling. When most patients apply ice, they don’t get that feeling so they assume it’s the wrong choice. The application of ice for about 15 minutes may not create immediate relief, but once the ice is removed, most patients will report a decrease in pain and soreness.
In nearly ever case, we will recommend ice over heat when dealing with neck and back pain. A simple test is to feel for heat over the painful area using the back of your hand. If you feel heat (or at least an increase in temperature) over that area, you don’t need more heat.
If taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory helps, realize that this is taking away the heat and that’s one of the reasons it helped. Adding more heat back in is just counterproductive. You almost can’t go wrong with ice, either.
The only way we see ice negatively affect patients is by using too much. When using ice, it’s important to give your skin some protection and a bit of a rest. You can use ice for 10 – 20 minutes depending on how much muscle is in the area. For example, the neck would be 10 minutes while the lower back would be 20 minutes.
Once you’ve applied the ice therapy (cryotherapy) to the area, you need to give your body a chance to rest for the rest of the hour. Applying ice pack after ice pack without that break can cause skin damage similar to frostbite.
For this same reason, it’s usually better to put a thin layer of cloth (like a towel or a t-shirt) between your skin and the ice pack. Applying the ice pack directly to the skin could be detrimental. For most people, this isn’t comfortable anyway, so this doesn’t tend to be a problem.
If you have any questions about which home therapy you should be doing for yourself, please check with your chiropractor. They will have a much better understanding of your problem and which modality will work best for you.