Contrast Therapy: Step by Step Guide To Alleviating Back Pain

Contrast therapy is a mechanism of alternating the application of hot and cold on a target region in order to alleviate pain and optimize recovery. Vigorous exercise such as sport or working out is a great example of a process by which tissue damage is created, tissue damage is also present in all manner of injuries including lower back pain. With this in mind, we’ve put together a short guide on a step by step approach to utilizing contrast bathing to alleviate your lower back pain or sciatica effectively.

How does contrast bathing work?

Essentially when it comes to recovery, the provision of nutrients and removal of waste via the circulatory system is vital. To the degree this process works naturally recovery will take place at a natural rate, however, there are tools such as contrast bathing which seek to enhance this process. Simply put, alternation of heat with ice, or hot with cold, creates a pumping effect by way of triggering vasoconstriction and vasodilation. This is simply the narrowing and then enlarging  of the blood vessels in the region. By pumping in this manner, we are focusing a flushing effect in the region to help enhance the process of removal of waste products and cell debris. We are also stimulating the provision of optimal circulation to the area bringing with it the fuel, nutrition and resources for recovery and regeneration. 

Who can contrast bathing work for?

Of course it is used commonly in the athletic arena but contrast bathing is worthwhile for all of us looking to recover from an injury or even a hard workout, and it’s pretty much free to do too!

So whether it is lower back pain, or it’s a case of a sprained ankle, or even simply aiding recovery from a tough session, contrast bathing is a great option to consider. 

Contrast bathing for back pain and sciatica

One of the ways we’ve found contrast bathing to be of help is in dealing with the consequences of a lower back injury giving back pain or sciatica symptoms. Especially when it comes to flare ups, much of the symptom picture is a result of excessive inflammation building up in the region. A confined space around the spine and therefore giving tension, pain, muscle spasm or sciatica symptoms down the leg. 

Application of spinal contrast bathing, directly on the lower region of the lower back where the injury resides is a great way of intervening directly to offset this negative process and helping clear out excessive inflammation in a more targeted manner when compared with medication or anti-inflammatories which do not have a focused effect and carry side effects. 

Spinal degeneration & spinal stenosis relief with contrast therapy

In our clinical experience, one group of people in particular that benefit from this kind of approach to contrast bathing is those where the spinal structure has changed and the bony tunnels of the spine have gotten smaller, conditions include the following:

This is not an exhaustive list but we find that individuals with these conditions suffer most from excess inflammatory build up in response to a minor strain of the recovering region of the lower back. To learn more about each condition you can click the topic of interest above. 

How to perform contrast therapy on your low back

It really is as simple as using a microwavable heat pack, or hot water bottle, and a bag of frozen peas. We’ll discuss a little device that can make this even easier later on too.

  • Step 1: Locate the lower lumbar spine, around the L4, L5, S1 region of your back. This is usually just below the level of your belly button (on your back). You can also find the two “dimples” at the base of your lower back, one of the left and one on the right, then come up about 1 inch.
  • Step 2: Apply the heat to the area for 3 to 5 minutes on the spine.
  • Step 3: Remove the heat and apply the cold/ice to the same region for the same time.
  • Step 4: Repeat the process 3 times through which will take about 20 to 30 minutes

It’s as simple as that, you can do this as often as you like during the day, 3 times can work well, but if you’re suffering from a lot of inflammation or a very recent flare up, there’s no problem trying it more frequently. Giving your body that extra helping hand!

Pro-Tip when doing contrast bathing

Simple strategies that make things easier for you include things like not using your hand to hold the hot or cold pack in place, instead using the waistband of your clothes to hold the pack in place. Why? Because this avoids you sitting or standing twisted for 30 minutes!

Another option is to sit down with the back of your chair holding the pack in place, this provides a little more compression too and can work quite nicely. 

Finally, we find that if you can go “hands-free” it makes it much easier to “multitask” while performing this contrast bathing. We’re all very busy these days, often in spite of lower back pain, so anything that allows for multitasking is often a help!

Make your contrast bathing even easier with the Recoverytherm Cube

The main reason we don’t usually recommend contrast bathing as standard for most people is because of the barrier to adherence. Let’s face it, it helps, but inconvenience and “faff” is often a barrier that prevents you from benefiting from this therapy. Having to shuttle run back and forth from the microwave to the freezer can be annoying and disrupting. 

 Recently we came across a new device by Therabody, the Recoverytherm Cube and after using it regularly it is clear that this little device is a great option for those that want to benefit from contrast bathing particularly for the lower back. Remember it is not replacing the need for you to rebuild your back through rehabilitation, but the ability to just strap this device around your waist and get on with things while it automatically does the contrast therapy “hands free” is well worth it for many.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Recoverytherm Cube then check out the full video we’ve done on “pro’s and con’s” of this device as well as our recommendations with it.

Links to purchase:

If you want to purchase the RecoveryTherm Cube In the UK for £125 here

If you’re in the USA you can purchase the RecoveryTherm Cube for $150 on Amazon here.

Note: using these links help support us in continuing to create content to help you with your back pain, health and wellbeing.

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