Should I use ice or heat for my arthritis pain?
A common question that I hear is whether to use ice or heat for aches and pains. The general rule is that in the first 48 hours after an injury, ice should be used to reduce inflammation. After the first 48 hours, ice or heat may be used. The common sense advice is: use what works! If ice makes the pain feel better, then use that. If heat makes the pain feel better, that is okay, too.
Ice is an excellent anti-inflammatory while heat is good at relaxing and loosening muscles. Before beginning an exercise session, gentle warming in combination with gentle stretching can be used to help loosen the muscles and prepare them for exercise. After exercising, ice is good to help reduce any inflammation that may have occurred while performing activities.
In someone who has a baseline of mild aches and then suffers an exacerbation, ice is generally still a good modality to use for the first 48 hours after the exacerbation.
Some general rules for using ice:
- Ice for no more than 15-20 minutes at a time. This is important in order to avoid damaging the skin.
- Wait for the area to have returned to normal body temperature before repeating an icing treatment.
- If you are icing then you are seeking to reduce inflammation. It is helpful to elevate the body part being iced, if possible, above the heart in order to help reduce swelling and inflammation.
- A bag of frozen peas works just as well as an ice pack for reducing inflammation and you can eat it later if you get hungry. Try it!
- If you have diabetes or any other condition that may impair your sensation, check your skin frequently as you ice to make sure the skin is not harmed.
Some general rules for using heat:
- Heating pads and hot wet towelswork very well to warm sore muscles.
- Use heat for 15-20 minutes at a time. Do not repeat a heating treatment until the skin has returned to a normal temperature.
- Never go to sleep with a heating pad on as this may result in serious burns to the skin.
- If you have diabetes or any other condition that may impair your sensation, check your skin frequently as you heat to make sure the skin is not harmed.