Heat Therapy vs. Cold Therapy for Aching Joints


As an active child growing up, my numerous injuries were met with the same phrase by my mother, a nurse: RICE.  Rest, ice, compress, elevate.  That was the cure for everything.  Rest, ice, compress, elevate. Then take some Advil.  Rest, ice, compress, elevate. You'll be just fine.  Thankfully, I always was.

Unfortunately for osteoarthritis patients, painful joints may be more severe than a one-time injury such as a twisted ankle playing on a playground or a jammed finger from basketball.  For this condition, patients should consider both cold and hot treatments.

In my case, treating acute joint pain or injury with ice was overwhelmingly effective.  The cold - in the form of an ice pack or, more often, a bag of frozen vegetables - helped act as anesthetic, numbing the area and reducing pain.  According to Arthritis.org, cold treatments decrease pain and swelling by constricting blood vessels and preventing fluids from leaking into the surrounding tissues.  Arthritis.org also states that, "cold treatment is good for joint pain and swelling," thus making it an effective combatant for flare induced joint pain.  Also, be sure not to use ice for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, as the skin needs time to recover from the cold.

Heat therapy, on the other hand, is ideal for loosening up muscles by stimulating blood flow.  Warm temperatures will help relax tight muscles.  In this sense, heating treatments are more appropriate in treating a chronic condition where a patient may require a relieving regiment before starting the day.  Whereas cold treatments retroactively reduce pain and inflammation, heat treatments help prepare stiff joints for use.  Heat treatments can be as simple as a warm shower, or could be in the form of a dip in a Jacuzzi, a visit to the sauna, or the application of a heating pad (or warm washcloth).  Both dry heat and wet heat can be used to help treat pain.

Another option for treating osteoarthritis pain may be a contrast bath.  According to the Medical Center at Ohio State University, a contrast bath consists of treating a painful joint first in a warm bath, followed by alternating hot and cold baths. It is recommended to use the hot bath for four minutes, then the cold for one minute.  Repeat this process three times, finishing with a hot bath.  This technique will give the benefits of both treatments; soothing and decreasing inflammation with one singular process.

For osteoarthritis patients, both warm and cold treatments can be utilized for best results.  Before starting a day, it may be wise to take a 20 minute warm shower to help get your body loosen up.  And after a long day, it may be wise to ice your sore knees or feet.  When using ice or a heating pack, be careful not to apply the treatment directly to your skin - use a towel to protect yourself from potential burns.  It is normal for the skin to turn a light pink after applying cold or heat treatment, however, if the skin becomes a deep red or does not return to the normal color within 20 minutes, consult a doctor.

If pain does not respond to heat or cold treatments, please consult a doctor.  This may be the sign of a more severe condition or injury.