If your joints are aching or burning, or you feel shooting pains in your knees, hands or shoulders, it’s normal to want relief - fast. This quickest thing you can do is apply heat or cold.
Applying heat to specific areas of your body increases blood flow and supplies oxygen and nutrients to those places. This reduces pain and relaxes sore muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Applying cold slows down circulation and blood flow to an area. This helps reduce pain, swelling, and muscles spasm.
Human beings have probably been doing this since the beginning of time. Imagine our ancestors applying cold water or snow to an injured ankle, or sighing with relief as they submerged themselves in soothing natural hot springs when they came across them
Today, we also use heat and cold treatments to reduce arthritis and joint pain symptoms by unwinding in a steaming bath, or applying hot or cold packs to throbbing joints.
Icing and heating are both beneficial and inexpensive treatments that you can use at home with minimal risks. But since they are opposites, you may be confused about which is best or when to use each one.
Here are some guidelines for when to go hot – and when to take the cold plunge.
Hot or Cold – Which is Better for Arthritis pain?
Ice is generally recommended for acute injuries, because a new injury causes inflammation. Ice decreases the blood flow to the area, which decreases inflammation and swelling.
On the other hand, recurring pain is best treated with heat, which brings blood flow to the area and promotes healing.
Here’s the key thing to remember:
Heat helps muscles relax. Cold helps to minimize inflammation and pain.
Switching between hot and cold therapy can help you manage arthritis pain, as long as you use each one appropriately.
Never apply heat to a joint that is hot, red, and irritated. And don’t apply cold to a joint that's stiff and not moving well.
And in using either therapy, always guard against damaging your skin by exposing it to relatively extreme temperatures. After a treatment, check for any signs of skin damage such as a change in color, rash, or blisters.
How to use heat therapy for joint pain
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Soothing heat with Natracure Arthritis Mitts[/caption]
What’s more relaxing than soaking in a bath or shower after a long day? Or sipping a mug of hot tea or coffee, or cozying up in a warm robe?
There’s a reason we reach for heat when we feel achy or tired. Warmth comforts and soothes us, and offers relief from pain or stress.
A little hot therapy can do wonders to relieve painful joints affected by arthritis.
Heat opens up the blood vessels which stimulates blood flow and improves circulation, supplying oxygen and nutrients to the joints. This helps increase the range of motion, and reduces stiffness in painful joints.
Heat also relaxes tense, sore muscles, tendons and ligaments, and decreases muscle spasms.
A little warmth also eases psychological stress, which can be a major factor in causing pain symptoms.
1. You can apply heat therapy many ways, including from a bath or shower, or from a hot water bottle or gel pack.
2. A sauna or steam bath can help your muscles and joints relax. You can also use heat therapy in the shower by letting the warm water hit the sore areas of your body, and soothe stiff muscles by soaking in a hot tub or hot bath.
3. If you use microwaveable hot packs or mitts and booties
, follow the instructions carefully. Don't overheat the products. The goal is warmth. Your skin should not burn.
4. As a general rule, don’t apply heat or stay in a hot tub or bath for longer than 20 minutes, unless your doctor or physical therapist recommends it.
5. The heat should be warm, not too hot, and should never burn you. Aim to maintain a consistent temperature.
6. Check with your doctor before using heat therapy if you have poor circulation or diabetes.
7. Never apply heat to an open wound or stitches.
If you have swelling, use cold first and then heat.
8. Don’t sleep on a heating pad. You can burn your skin.
9. Prevent burns by placing a towel or cloth between your skin and the heat source.
How to use cold therapy
Use cold therapy after an injury, or on an area that is swollen or bruised.
Cold slows down blood flow to an injury. By reducing circulation, you reduce inflammation, which helps diminish muscle spasms, pain and swelling.
1. With a newly inflamed joint or to ease an RA flare-up, apply a cool compress, gel pack or ice pack on the affected area to minimize inflammation and reduce pain.
2. An easy way to apply ice is to make an ice pack of crushed ice in a plastic bag, wrapped in a thin towel. It’s easy to shape it around the affected joint. You can also use a bag of frozen vegetables the same way.
3. Don't overdo the cold treatment. Apply the cold compress for 15-20 minutes at a time, and remove it for at least 20 minutes so your skin isn’t injured.
4. Always place a towel or cloth between your skin and the cold source to prevent skin damage. If you notice your skin becoming numb, blistered, bright red, or blotchy, remove the cold source immediately.
5. Avoid cold therapy if you have circulatory problems. Always check with your doctor before using cold or hot therapies.
Hot or cold? The bottom line
If you’re still not sure whether to use heat or cold, here are some guidelines:
1. For chronic arthritic pain, some doctors recommend applying heat early in the day to relax the muscles around the joints, and applying ice at the end of the day to minimize inflammation from the day’s activities.
2. Use common sense. Don’t ice your body when you are already cold or shivering. And don’t apply heat when you’re sweating. Your brain may interpret these excesses as threats and increase your pain.
3. Experiment to see what feels best to you. Most people respond to gentle warmth and find it a big relief. But don’t continue if heat makes you feel worse.
4. Use your own preferences as the tie-breaker. If you are a person who always feels hot, a little cool therapy will make you feel better. If you generally feel chilled and hate the idea of being iced, try a little warm therapy. If you try one and don’t like it, try the other!
5. When in doubt, call your health care provider for advice.