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.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the oldest -- and most cherished -- medical myths out there. For our October 2011 issue, we asked Dimitrios Pappas, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, about the long-term effects of one popular childhood activity: knuckle cracking.
Q: My 10-year-old son cracks his knuckles. Is it true that it causes arthritis?
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.
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.