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Heat and cold therapy for arthritis pain

The pain and stiffness from arthritis may be eased using heat or cold therapy to help reduce inflammation.

Heat may be applied with special warming pads or a hot water bottle wrapped in a cloth, while cold can be applied with special cold pads or a packet of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth.

Whether hot or cold works best may take some trial and error.

How does heat and cold therapy ease arthritis pain?

Heat and 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. It also 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 face 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?

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 you are using a bath, hot water bottle or a 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 are effective for arthritis pain?

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

  • Disposable heat patches or belts available at most pharmacies
  • Heated swimming pool
  • Hot packs - available are ones that can be warmed in a microwave
  • Moist heating pad
  • Therapeutic mixture of paraffin and mineral oil
  • Warm bath
  • Warm shower
  • Warm whirlpool bath
  • 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.

Can hot baths or spas help alleviate arthritis pain?

Many people with arthritis find good 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. Seek advice about using hot tubs or spas if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease, and avoid using them if you are pregnant.

Does cold therapy work for arthritis pain?

Yes. Cold compresses numb the sore area and reduce inflammation and swelling. Ice packs are especially good for joint pain caused by an arthritis flare-up. You might also try using a local cooling spray on your back or painful area before and after exercise. This superficial cooling decreases muscle spasms and increases the threshold of pain. Or you can make instant cold packs from frozen bags of vegetables. Always wrap these in a cloth before applying to skin. Never apply directly to skin.

Some patients prefer cold therapy to moist heat for arthritis pain, while others experience 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.

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