In my chiropractic practice the majority of my patients are looking for pain relief. Many times, they wonder whether to use heat or ice for relief of neck or lower back pain. This article will discuss the use of cold packs to relieve pain.
On their initial visits to me many patients will relate that they have been using a heating pad on their sore back or neck. When I ask how it is working, they invariably say it feels good for a while but, overall, their pain is worsening.
To understand the use of cold packs, instead of heat, for pain relief, let’s discuss what happens when there is injury to the body. One of our body’s responses to an injury is to produce inflammation or swelling. If one applies heat it may feel good on the skin and superficial muscles, but deeper down heat will just further increase and exacerbate the inflamed area. Inappropriately using heat during the inflammatory phase of healing causes an increase in blood supply to the already swollen, injured area resulting in an increase of pain.
Instead, when inflammation and pain are present, we should use an ice pack or cold to reduce swelling and discomfort. My experience is, that as long as pain is present, ice is usually more effective and safer.
When we use cold or ice in my office we use gel-filled packs. We put them in the freezer, and they get quite cold. They are too cold to put directly on the skin, so we must use a sufficient layer of cloth between the ice pack and the skin. Any cloth cover will do, but we’ve found flannel is a great material to use between the skin and the ice pack.
The ice pack one uses needs to stay cold long enough to penetrate down to the area of the body where the inflammation is occurring. It is also advantageous that the gel pack is flexible to mold to the body part and is strong enough so that one can lie back on it without the pack bursting for convenience of use.
Where our pain is located will determine how long a cold pack should be applied. For instance, one would apply ice 10 minutes for neck pain relief, 15 minutes to relieve pain of the mid back, and lower back pain relief requires 20 minutes.
The key to using cold packs for pain relief is using it repetitiously. Three applications of ice per day is the minimum required. If possible, optimum usage is five or six times per day.
I recommend patients keep a couple ice packs in their freezer so they are ready and available to conveniently use should an unfortunate injury occur.
Next time, in the event of musculoskeletal injury of the neck or back, grab a cold pack to obtain pain relief.