What is helpful for lower back pain: walking or cold and hot compresses?
Lower back pain that is caused by SI joint dysfunction can manifest in a variety of ways. Some people may experience pain while walking, sitting, bending, or even lying down on the affected side. These painful feelings can include tingling, numbness, weakness, or spasms in the lower extremities, and lead you to wonder what you can do at home to help ease the discomfort. For example, some patients ask whether walking can make it better or worse, or whether applying heat or cold can help with lower back pain.
To know which treatment will help, it’s important to know what is causing your pain. Was it a recent injury or has the pain been lingering for a while? When does it hurt the most?
Talk to your doctor about getting an accurate diagnosis to determine whether the SI (sacroiliac) joint is the source of your lower back pain. If it is SI joint dysfunction, your doctor will create a treatment plan that is designed for you. This plan will likely start with some treatments that you can do at home, such as applying heat or cold (or both, at different times) to the affected area.
Your medical professional may also recommend seeing a physical therapist to review your gait while walking. In addition to using heat or cold, a physical therapist may also use ultrasound, laser, or other newer methods to decrease pain in the affected tissue. Also, your therapist may recommend ways to normalize your gait along with other non-surgical therapies to potentially ease the pain.
If walking hurts, talk to your doctor.
If walking feels unusually uncomfortable, stressful, unstable, weak, or painful on your lower back, buttocks, groin, or legs, talk to your doctor before continuing your walking habits. Daily walking is wonderful for fitness and stress management, but not if it’s causing you more pain or putting you at risk of falling. Consider keeping a journal of how walking is affecting you, including when you walk, for how long, and any other circumstances that stand out to you, such as how it feels taking stairs or walking downhill. Share this with your doctor.
If walking feels good or doesn’t seem to exacerbate the pain, let your doctor know that, too. Walking could be an important part of your pain management.
Should you apply heat or cold for lower back pain?
A warm compress — or heating pad or warm, damp towel — can provide relief for tight muscles and joints but is generally not recommended within the first two days of an injury. When a muscle is injured, it becomes inflamed, and a cold pack (also called an ice pack or cold compress), may be the better option to reduce swelling or spasms in the hours after an injury. Never hold ice directly on your skin or leave cold or heating pads in place for too long. Be sure to use a layer of cloth, removing the cold compress immediately if it becomes uncomfortable.
These are general guidelines and are not meant to be medical advice; talk to your doctor about what will work best for your pain.
Next step: Talk to your doctor about how to best leverage walking or hot or cold compresses in your treatment plan as a whole.
Having a physical therapist evaluate and help you adjust your walking gait and applying heat or cold at home to reduce pain symptoms are only two of many non-surgical treatment optionsavailable to you.
If you have followed a non-surgical treatment plan for six months or more, and your SI joint is still causing your lower back or lower extremities pain, you might consider consulting a trained physician to ask about SI joint fusion.
Additional related resources for low back pain relief and non-surgical therapies, such as hot or cold compresses:
- Non-surgical SI Joint Therapies: These can help decrease and manage pain in the tissues that surround and support the sacroiliac joint.
- Karan's Story: “Karan tried all sorts of things to manage her pain, including physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, heating pads, ice packs, and staying off her feet.”
- SI Joint Pain Relief After A Fall - "Sarah's" Story: “She applied an ice pack to her left lower buttock.”
- Ellen's Story: “My hip pain had gone from a ‘floating pain’ to a ‘meat grinder groin pain.’ I was taking my medication and using a heating pad.”
- How Do I Prepare for SI Joint Physical Therapy?