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How 99% of Folks Are Messing Up Heat & Ice (..And How to Fix It!)

How 99% of Folks Are Messing Up Heat & Ice (..And How to Fix It!)

Dr. Arnan Sisson


When folks come through my doors the most common feeling most have is that of frustration. They may have tried literally everything. It could be that they have done traditional physical therapy for 2-3 years, had countless adjustments to their back from a local chiropractor, or even worse tried a scary back surgery.

But 99% of the time, they’ve only had temporary relief or worse, no relief at all. So, the frustration is real and completely understandable.

Along with these sorts of treatments, folks with severe back or sciatic pain often use ice/heat on their backs since the problem first started some 5, 10, or even 30 years ago.

Often many treatments just flat out don ‘t work, and heat/ice can be placed in that category. But in a way, not so much…

Heat and Ice can actually improve pain if there used the correct way. But that is a huge If, and more often than not this isn’t occurring in folks suffering with back troubles.

This is such a hot topic that I’ve devoted an entire chapter in the book “The Back Pain Tool Box” to this very issue. With all of that said, I figured today I’d pull out a few highlights from the book to get folks in more of the right direction when it comes to using heat/ice for back troubles.

First off let’s talk about how heat/ice actually work. We must know this to really understand how to use these tools for relief.

The first way these two work is through something called Gait Theory. I won’t bore you with all of the scientific mobo jumbo. But simply put, the sensation from ice/heat can override the nerve signal/pain coming from your back issues. And in effect, dampen over all pain.

The second way that ice can have its effect is through reducing inflammation. This occurs after a sudden injury (i.e. first 3-5 days after hurting your back). This is when your body is trying to heal itself, and sometimes it goes overboard with its response and in effect causes more pain from swelling/tenderness. Ice can reduce the extent of inflammation and reduce pain.

So, with that said, first we need to make sure to use the correct treatment at the correct time. Since we have more of our inflammation right after an injury. Its best to use ice for the 3-5 days after a back injury to best help with pain. The only other situation to use it after this would be for significant pain (i.e. 8/10 pain) due to its numbing effect. Aside from that heat should be used after a week.

Heat and ice, because of the gait theory only work temporarily. So, by themselves they are really ineffective treatments that likely won’t get you off the medication, back to playing the grandkids, and back to exercise.

But if you pair these with slow graded exercise you can put more of a dent in back pain. So, the new way to use these tools is to simply use them around exercise to allow you to do more of it. If you can build up the exercise or movement, then you can start seeing some long term improvements.

The key to remember though is that we don’t want to completely mask our pain, we only want to dampen it. So, if you use ice prior to your walk then its best to wait 5-10 minutes after using so you don’t have complete numbness and overdo it.

That’s it for today everyone, remember movement is medicine!

P.S. Along with graded exercise, postural adjustments at home, in the car, and work are huge at reducing lower back pain. We have a great 13 Step Back Pain Check List that has all the top postural adjustments to help with back issues. The great part about this list is that you set up these adjustments and you can passively treat your back! Click Here to download this free check list today!