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Arthritis Pain Management: Hot & Cold Therapy

Arthritis Pain Management: Hot & Cold Therapy

Around 50 million Americans deal with some form of arthritis or arthritis-related disease. For these 5 million people, pain management can feel like a constant uphill battle. Luckily, there are pain management techniques that can help ease some of the aches and pains of arthritis. A couple of these techniques are hot and cold therapy—locally applying a heat source or cold pack to the area for a temporary, low-cost, and effective solution to arthritic pains.

Heat Therapy

According to a Harvard Medical School publication, heat helps improve your pain tolerance as well as relaxes muscles, both of which can help reduce the pain of arthritis.1 Heat enhances circulation, which delivers nutrients to joints and muscles. Heat treatments are especially effective in the treatment of stiff joints and tired muscles, and helps get your body limber and ready for exercise or activity. Of course, you can visit a physical therapist's office for heat treatment with supervision, but these heat therapy techniques are simple enough to use safely at home:

  • Warm bath or shower. Soaking in a warm bathtub or running a warm shower for 15-20 minutes relaxes weight-bearing muscles and eases stiffness. Bathtubs with water jets or showerhead massagers can closely replicate physical therapists' professional warm-water massagers.
  • Heating pad. While wet heat penetrates deeper tissues than dry heat, a heating pad can be a simple way to pinpoint and locally treat sources of pain. You can purchase electric heating pads from a drug store or physical therapist's office, but another option is a quick, easy-to-make homemade hot pad. Here's how you can make your own:
    • Run a mid-sized hand towel under water until thoroughly soaked, wringing out excess water until the towel is reasonably damp, but not dripping.
    • Heat the damp, folded towel in a microwave for 20-60 seconds, depending on the power level and the towel's thickness, or until comfortably warm. You can also heat the towel in a conventional oven at 300o F for 5-10 minutes until comfortably warm. 
    • Before applying the hot pad, always test the heat on the inside of your arm. This prevents burns and makes sure the towel is at a comfortable heat.
    • For an added layer of protection, you can wrap the hot pad in a thinner, dry towel.
  • Paraffin bath. These treatments involve soaking hands or feet in a wax bath, wrapping the wax in a heat-retaining wrapping, and then peeling the wax away as it cools. These treatments are generally conducted in a physical therapst's office, but home treatment kits are also available for purchase. Be sure to check with your therapist before purchasing and/or using any at-home paraffin bath kits.
  • Mineral oil & warm water. Stiff hand joints can be soothed by applying mineral oil to the hands, covering them in rubber dishwashing globes, and soaking them in hot water for 5-10 minutes.

Cold Therapy

While heat can provide great temporary respite from arthritis pain, there are some studies that show that heat contributes to the breakdown of articular cartilage and tissues that contain collagen. 2 With that in mind, cold therapy treatments may be the right choice for you in managing your arthritis. Applying a cold source to the body decreases the temperature of the skin, superficial and deeper tissues, and joint cavity. Cold treatments are best for acute pain, as it acts to numb nerve endings, effectively numbing the pain. Applying cold to the skin restricts blood vessels, which slows circulation and reduces swelling. Here are a few at-home cold treatments you can use to manage your arthritic pain:

  • Ice. Place a handful of ice cubes in a plastic bag or take a bag of frozen vegetables and wrap it in a dry cloth towel. Apply to the painful areas for no more than 20 minutes at a time. This is one of the simplest, most commonly-known ways to treat arthritis pain, and is especially effective for spot-treatment of inflammation or painful jabs.
  • Cold pack. A store-bought gel cold pack can be effective in the same way as an ice or frozen vegetable pack. These packs are a good investment to make if you are one who often uses at-home cold treatments to manage arthritis pain. These packs tend to stay cold longer than ice or frozen vegetables, and you can find them in sleeve forms to easily wrap around a joint. You can also construct a home-made cold pack by mixing one part rubbing alcohol with two parts water and freezing the solution in a zip-top plastic bag.
  • Ice bath. A slightly more intense version of the ice treatments is the ice bath, which involves submerging the affected area in a container of ice and water for a few minutes at a time.

Additional Resources

For more information and resources regarding arthritis and hot & cold therapy treatments, see these websites:



  1. complementary-medicine/heat- therapy-for-rheumatoid-arthritis
Leave your comment
24 May 2018
Great info, thanks!