Heat and Cold Therapy for Arthritis Pain

Is there anything you can do about the pain and stiffness of arthritis? Perhaps you've heard that heat or cold therapy can help relieve pain and are wondering if it's worth giving them a try. Well, it is.

Many arthritis doctors recommend both heat and cold treatments to help reduce inflammation and ease the pain and stiffness that comes with arthritis. It may take a little "trial and error" to learn which therapy works best for your pain. But by staying with it, you may find the right combination of hot packs and ice packs to get the most relief from pain and make it easier to manage arthritis. If pain persists, be sure to talk with your doctor.

How Does Heat and Cold Help Arthritis Pain?

Heat or cold therapy works by stimulating your body's own healing force. For instance, heat dilates the blood vessels, stimulates blood circulation, and reduces muscle spasms. In addition, heat alters the sensation of pain. You can use either dry heat -- such as heating pads or heat lamps -- or moist heat -- such as warm baths or heated wash cloths.

Conversely, cold compresses reduce swelling by constricting blood vessels. While cold packs may be uncomfortable at first, they can numb deep pain.

What Temperature Is Best When Using Heat Therapy for Arthritis?

When using moist heat therapy, make sure the temperature is not so hot that you burn your skin. Find a temperature that you can comfortably tolerate, whether using a bath, hot water bottle, or spa therapy.

You also need to give it time to work. Use the moist heat application for at least 15 minutes before exercise. Then use it again immediately following exercise. You can also use moist heat anytime you want additional relief from arthritis pain.

Which Types of Heat Therapy Help Arthritis Pain?

You can choose from the following popular types of heat therapy for arthritis pain:

  • disposable heat patches or belts available at most drugstores
  • heated swimming pool
  • hot packs (some can be warmed in a microwave)
  • moist heating pad
  • therapeutic mixture of paraffin and mineral oil
  • warm bath
  • warm shower
  • warm whirlpool or hot tub
  • warm, moist towel or cloth

You may also sit on a stool that has rubber tips for safety while letting the warm shower hit the affected area. The constant heat flowing on the arthritic joint or pain site helps to keep pain minimal and allows for easier movement.

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Can Hot Baths or Spas Help Arthritis Pain?

Many people with arthritis find relief from pain and stiffness with hot baths or spas. The moist heat increases muscle relaxation, boosts blood supply to the site of pain, and relieves rigidity and spasms in the muscles. But avoid hot tubs or spas if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, or if you are pregnant.

Does Cold Therapy Help Arthritis Pain?

Yes. Cold packs numb the sore area and reduce inflammation and swelling. Ice packs are especially good for joint pain caused by an arthritis flare. You might also try using a local spray such as fluoromethane (nonflammable) on your back or painful area before and after exercise. This superficial cooling decreases muscle spasms and increases the threshold for pain. Or you can make instant cold packs from frozen bags of vegetables.

Some patients prefer cold therapy to moist heat for arthritis pain, while others tell of having the best relief when they alternate the sessions with moist heat and ice. You can experiment with moist heat and ice therapy and then select the method that gives the best relief with the least trouble or expense.

How Often Should I Use Heat or Cold Therapy for Arthritis Pain?

Try to use moist heat or ice packs at least twice a day for the best relief from pain and stiffness.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, five to 10-minute ice massages applied to a painful area within the first 48 hours of pain onset can provide relief. So can heat, which relaxes the muscles. Heat should be used for pain that lasts longer than 48 hours.

Should I Use Heat or Ice for Acute Injuries?

If the new injury is red, swollen, or inflamed, then cooling the injury may help prevent inflammation. For example, if your pain stems from a muscle injury, treat it immediately with RICE -- rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Rest the injured body part and then apply ice. You can use an ice pack or a pack of frozen vegetables or fruit for 20 minutes. Then take it off for 20 minutes. Add compression with a firm elastic bandage. Elevate the injured part to keep swelling to a minimum.

Before using moist heat or ice therapy, be sure your skin is dry and free from cuts and sores. If you have visible skin damage, don't use cold or heat. And always protect your skin with a towel. After using heat or cold, gently move the arthritic joint to reduce stiffness.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on November 18, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Arthritis Foundation: "Use Heat and Cold."

American College of Rheumatology: "Back Pain."

American Physical Therapy Association: "What You Need to Know About Arthritis."

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases: "Back Pain."

McIlwain, H. and Bruce, D. A Diet for a Pain-Free Life, Marlowe, 2007.

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