Hot—or Cold—Comfort?

How to tell when heat or ice is the best remedy.

Health Monitor Staff
Hot Cold Comfort, Arthritis

That bum knee. That stiff back. That sudden arthritis flare? Do you ice it? Heat it? Haven’t a clue? Read on to clear the confusion! And to get the best relief, ask your doctor about prescription medication and other treatments.

Hot: best for chronic pain and stiffness; recommended at least 48 to 72 hours after an injury

  • Works by: stimulating circulation to the painful area, loosening muscles and increasing flexibility
  • For best relief: Apply moist heat—it penetrates more deeply into tissues. Try a hot water bottle, hot pack, or a towel soaked in hot water. You can also purchase microwaveable moist heat packs or a moist heating pad meant to be used with water. Put a cloth between the pad and your skin to prevent burns. 
  • Apply for: 20 minutes at a time, up to 3 or 4 times a day

Cold: best for sudden swelling or inflammation, an arthritis flare, muscle spasms, an injury (e.g., a sprain)

  • Works by: numbing nerves and shrinking blood vessels to reduce swelling
  • For best relief: Use a flexible cold compress that hugs knees, shoulders, elbows and other body parts. Try freezer gel packs, a cloth dipped in ice water or a bag of frozen peas, and wrap the cold pack in a washcloth so it doesn’t contact your skin directly.
  • Apply for: 20 minutes at a time, up to 3 times a day

For your safety

  • Discontinue heat or cold treatments if pain gets worse and contact your physician.
  • Do not use heat or cold treatment if you have poor circulation, nerve damage or open wounds without discussing with your doctor first.
  • Set a timer if you are using an electric heating pad so you don’t fall asleep with the pad on
February 2014