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Two of the simplest and most cost effective methods for managing pain in arthritis are heat and cold therapy. This article outlines how heat and cold can help manage pain in arthritis.

Arthritis, marked by joint inflammation, pain, and stiffness, is an umbrella made up of over 100 different individual subtypes. The two most common subtypes of arthritis are osteoarthritis (also known as wear and tear arthritis) and rheumatoid arthritis (a type of inflammatory or autoimmune condition).

There is no cure for arthritis, but various treatments and therapies can help reduce symptoms, prevent or slow down disease progression, and help maintain the functioning of joints. It is important to go to a doctor and stay on your treatment regimen, which will likely be composed of either non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), biologic therapy, disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), corticosteroids, or a combination of these drugs.

While it is important to adhere to a strict therapeutic regimen, two of the simplest and cost effective treatment methods for pain relief in arthritis is the use of hot and cold treatments. Some people find that they respond better to hot treatments while others prefer cold treatments. You should experiment with different types of heat or cold application to see which one works for you.

Heat treatment for arthritis

Application of heat is extremely beneficial as it helps improve blood circulation (which increases the delivery of key nutrients to joints and muscles), it helps soothe and relax stiff joints, and improves muscle fatigue. Application of heat, especially first thing in the morning, can help reduce the joint stiffness that patients with arthritis universally experience. Heat helps your body get limber and readies you for any exercise and activity that you will be doing in the day.

These are the types of heat application that can be beneficial for patients with arthritis:

  • Taking a warm bath or shower in the morning, which will help reduce joint stiffness
  • Applying a heating pad, which can be found in a drug store and can be warmed up in the microwave or in boiling water, to the location of joint inflammation or pain for 20 minutes at a time. Make sure to have a protective cloth in between the heating pad and your skin. You can also buy air-activated heating pads which are convenient for traveling as they can be used anywhere.
  • Buying a warm paraffin wax treatment system, which can found at drugstores, and can be used for treatment of sore hand or foot joints.
  • Taking a soak in a warm whirlpool or a hot tub that is set to an ambient (not too hot) temperature
  • Using moist heating pads from drugstores which you can place on the affected or painful joint for 15-20 minutes. You can also make your own moist heating pad by placing a wet washcloth in a freezer bag and microwaving it.  When using moist therapy, it is important to make sure that the temperature is not hot enough to burn your skin. Therefore, you should find a temperature that you can tolerate. Moisture therapy is beneficial to use right before you exercise (up to 15 minutes before you exercise). You can also use it after you exercise. This helps loosen your muscles and will help you work out more efficiently.
  • Another method of relieving stiff and painful hand joints is by applying mineral oil on the area that is affected, then put on rubber dishwashing gloves and then placing your hands under a tap of hot water for 5-10 minutes.  

Cold treatment for arthritis

Application of cold is best used for treatment of acute or immediate pain. This is because cold causes blood vessels to restrict or narrow, which slows down circulation (including circulation of inflammatory factors and cells). Thus, application of cold leads to a reduction in swelling. Additionally, cold has a numbing effect on the nerve endings. Thus, the signal for pain is numbed down and you will feel less pain.

These are the types of cold application that can be beneficial for patients with arthritis:

  • Buy a cold gel pack from a drug store that you can keep in your freezer for any time that is necessary. These packs don’t leak and they stay cold for a very long time. They also come in a sleeve-form that can be easily wrapped around the joint that is affected.
  • Take a bag of ice (in a freezer bag) or frozen vegetables and apply them to the affected joint or painful region for up to 20 minutes at a time. Make sure to wrap the ice or vegetable bag with a cloth to protect your skin from getting freezer burn.
  • You can make your own ice pack by mixing one cup of rubbing alcohol with two cups of water, then freezing it in a zip-lock plastic bag. Then, you can apply that to your joint whenever it is inflamed.
  • If your joint is heavily inflamed or in pain, you can submerge your joint in a container that is filled with ice and water for 5-10 minutes.

  • Walasek, Steven P., and Stuart J. Walasek. "Reusable and microwavable hot or cold therapy mitt and method of manufacture." U.S. Patent No. 5,050,596. 24 Sep. 1991.
  • Kavuncu, Vural, and Deniz Evcik. "Physiotherapy in rheumatoid arthritis." Medscape General Medicine 6.2 (2004).
  • Oosterveld, Fredrikus GJ, and Johannes J. Rasker. "Treating arthritis with locally applied heat or cold." Seminars in arthritis and rheumatism. Vol. 24. No. 2. WB Saunders, 1994.
  • Ingram, Aaron Neil, and Mark Herman Bruder. "Therapeutic hot/cold pad." U.S. Patent No. 7,799,063. 21 Sep. 2010.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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