Objectives: Acute back and neck strains are very common. In addition to administering analgesics, these strains are often treated with either heat or cold packs. The objective of this study was to compare the analgesic efficacy of heat and cold in relieving pain from back and neck strains. The authors hypothesized that pain relief would not differ between hot and cold packs.
Methods: This was a randomized, controlled trial conducted at a university-based emergency department (ED) with an annual census of 90,000 visits. ED patients >18 years old with acute back or neck strains were eligible for inclusion. All patients received 400 mg of ibuprofen orally and then were randomized to 30 minutes of heating pad or cold pack applied to the strained area. Outcomes of interest were pain severity before and after pack application on a validated 100-mm visual analog scale (VAS) from 0 (no pain) to 100 (worst pain), percentage of patients requiring rescue analgesia, subjective report of pain relief on a verbal rating scale (VRS), and future desire for similar packs. Outcomes were compared with t-tests and chi-square tests. A sample of 60 patients had 80% power to detect a 15-mm difference in pain scores.
Results: Sixty patients were randomized to heat (n = 31) or cold (n = 29) therapy. Mean (+/-standard deviation [SD]) age was 37.8 (+/-14.7) years, 51.6% were female, and 66.7% were white. Groups were similar in baseline patient and pain characteristics. There were no differences between the heat and cold groups in the severity of pain before (75 mm [95% CI = 66 to 83] vs. 72 mm [95% CI = 65 to 78]; p = 0.56) or after (66 mm [95% CI = 57 to 75] vs. 64 mm [95% CI = 56 to 73]; p = 0.75) therapy. Pain was rated better or much better in 16/31 (51.6%) and 18/29 (62.1%) patients in the heat and cold groups, respectively (p = 0.27). There were no between-group differences in the desire for and administration of additional analgesia. Twenty-five of 31 (80.6%) patients in the heat group and 22 of 29 (75.9%) patients in the cold group would use the same therapy if injured in the future (p = 0.65).
Conclusions: The addition of a 30-minute topical application of a heating pad or cold pack to ibuprofen therapy for the treatment of acute neck or back strain results in a mild yet similar improvement in the pain severity. However, it is possible that pain relief is mainly the result of ibuprofen therapy. Choice of heat or cold therapy should be based on patient and practitioner preferences and availability.