Back Pain?

Cold May Be Your Enemy



So we've survived the first good cold snap of the season ... and sure enough, this is the time of year when all my low back pain patients appear.

Why would cold make back pain worse? Aren't we supposed to ice a swollen, painful back?

Well, yes and no. My stock response when patients ask me, "should I be using heat or cold on my back?" is to say, "Which one feels good?" The body has its own wisdom and one of the first signs that a self-help intervention for pain is working is the way the intervention feels. Cold feel good? Great, use cold. But most of the time ... especially when pain issues appear or worsen when cold weather hits ... it's better to use heat.

My own favorite approach is a hot epsom salt bath (this will come as no surprise to regular readers.) Not only does the heat relax muscles that may be in spasm, not only does it increase blood circulation so contracted tissues can be nourished again, but since Epsom Salt is made up in large part of magnesium, it's intrinsically relaxing and calming. Magnesium, you see, is essential to the relaxation of muscle and nerve tissue. And studies have shown that many people living in industrialized societies get only a fraction of the magnesium their bodies need.

So if you find that a day or two after you've been out in the cold and wind your back seizes up, the first thing to do is run down to the local drugstore. Buy a couple of big bags of Epsom Salt, go home, fill the tub with piping hot water, pour in a few cups of Epsom Salt ... and soak.

But only if the heat feels good! That's because a fresh physical injury will often produce swelling ... and ice is better to keep that under control when the injury is fresh. How can you tell if you've got a fresh physical injury instead of a more chronic spastic muscle issue?

(1) you may feel some tenderness when pressing directly upon the spine itself, and

(2) There will almost always be some event you can recall that triggered the pain. Typically this involves lifting more than you should ... and in the wrong way (by bending the back instead of the knees.)

Another word to the wise: if your back pain (or any other pain, for that matter) feels better after the warm soak, it's a good idea to also bundle up thoroughly when out in the cold, and especially when it's cold and windy. Chinese medicine calls wind "the spearhead of disease." It's thought that wind can drive cold, heat and damp into the body, especially when we're sweating and our pores are "open." I've had more than one back patient start to improve, only to regress when spending too much time out in the elements. Be forewarned. Pull on that extra sweater. Wrap yourself up in that scarf! I've even known one chronic back case who took to wearing cummerbunds!

Of course acupuncture's been known to be helpful in many cases of chronic or acute back pain. If you'd like to chat, get in touch.