Hot—or Cold—Comfort?

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

Health Monitor Staff
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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