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Is Heat Good for Arthritis? Home Remedies for Arthritis Pain
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Is Heat Good for Arthritis? Home Remedies for Arthritis Pain

If you’ve been diagnosed with any form of arthritis, you know the chronic pain of inflammation. Burning, gnawing pain in your knees, back, shoulders, or hips can make you lose sleep, miss work, not attend important events, and just feel generally miserable.

While there are ways of treating arthritis symptoms in the doctor’s office, there are also many ways of getting relief from the comfort of your own home. Let’s take a look at some helpful home remedies for arthritis.

What Is Arthritis?

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Psoriatic Arthritis?

Any condition that includes the suffix “-itis” typically refers to an inflammatory condition. Arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation in the joints.

There are many different forms and causes for arthritis, but they all produce painful, aching, burning, or sharp pain in joints throughout the body. Our bodies have over 250 joints, including the toes, fingers, ankles, knees, hips, spinal vertebrae, shoulders, and neck — and any one of these joints can be inflicted with arthritis.

Two of the most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The pain in both conditions is very similar, but osteoarthritis is caused by joints becoming weak and tender because of overuse, age, and other environmental factors. On the other hand, RA is an autoimmune disorder caused by confusion in the immune system that results in the body attacking itself, in this case, the joints.

Does Heat Help Arthritis?

Hot and cold therapy can be extremely helpful for many forms of arthritis, but it does depend on exactly what you’re feeling. For example, if you have gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis, using heat treatments might not be helpful.

Gout attacks generally feel extremely hot already, so adding extra heat might make things feel even worse. Instead, an ice pack is a good solution for cooling and calming the pain.

Other types of arthritis don’t feel hot but just ache, throb, and pulsate with pain. If you have very stiff joints, heat might be one of the best ways to relax so that it loosens up and rests. A helpful rule of thumb is that if you’re feeling aching or stiffness, use heat, but if you’re feeling swollen, use ice.

What Types of Heat Therapy Can Help With Arthritis?

Generally, using heat therapy twice daily for about 20 to 30 minutes effectively soothes discomfort.

There are several different ways of getting the benefits of heat therapy, but you should always be careful not to burn yourself by applying a level of heat that’s too high or by applying heat for too long. Here are some ways of applying heat to help ease tension from arthritis:

Dry Heat

Using dry heat can be a great way to relax arthritis pain. There are several ways to apply dry heat:

  • Electric heating pad: Using an electric heating pad at a low or medium setting for half an hour is a great way to soothe and relax discomfort from arthritis, especially if it’s being felt as lower back pain.
  • Hot packs: A hot water bottle, gel pack, or microwave-heated dry rice pillow is another way to place heat on a specific joint like the knee, ankle, or shoulder.
  • Heat patches: These attach to the skin and can be worn even while being active to keep a problem joint relaxed so that it doesn't become stiff or sore.

One of the most convenient things about using dry heat therapies is that they are always very accessible and can be used immediately. At the end of a long day, it’s very comforting to be able to press dry heat to a tender joint.

Moist Heat

Using moist heat has benefits that go beyond just dealing with arthritis pain. Moist heat can give you feelings of comfort and relaxation, which reduce pain all over the body by loosening muscles and joints that have been strained and stretched.

Here are a few ways to reap the benefits of moist heat:

  • Hot tub: A warm bath is a fantastic way of soothing the whole body, including any problematic joints.
  • Warm shower or bath: Using what you already have at home is a super easy way to get moist heat. You can also add Epsom salt, which contains magnesium, to a hot bath for added benefits.
  • Heated washcloths: A warm compress, like a moist heating pad, pressed on an aching joint is a quick way to help calm aching pain in the joints.
  • Sauna: While these are much harder to find than jacuzzis or bathtubs, a sauna is good for the skin as well as the joints.
  • Swim or exercise in water: If exercise is an issue because of nagging arthritis pain, consider trying to exercise in the water! Especially those with osteoarthritis may find water exercises much more manageable than walking, running, cycling, or lifting weights.

How Does Heat Help Arthritis?

Why exactly does heat seem to help arthritis pain? Your blood vessels open up wider when they're exposed to heat, which promotes blood flow, improves circulation, and can ease tight, spasming muscles.

When Can You Apply Heat Therapy?

Some times of the day are better for applying heat than others — a hot compress in the morning can help loosen up your joints so that they’re less tense throughout the day.

Before stretching or exercising, a hot towel or patch can make your workout more effective by easing muscle tension around your joints. You shouldn't use heat if your joint is bruised or swollen, as this will only make things worse — in these circumstances, it’s better to use cold therapy.

What Types of Cold Therapy Can Ease Pain?

Cold treatments are meant to be used for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, so unless you’re in extreme pain, it probably won’t feel as relaxing and comforting as heat therapy. You don’t want to apply anything super cold to your skin, as you could damage skin tissue. Here are two ways of applying a cold compress to the skin:

  1. Wrap a pack of ice, frozen vegetables, or a frozen sponge in a cloth or paper towel, and then press it where you’re feeling inflammation.
  2. In a localized area of the body (like a knee, wrist, or ankle), it might be helpful to give yourself an ice massage on the affected area by rubbing an ice cube for a few minutes. For more extreme swelling, an ice bath or cold shower might help.

Some find that alternating between a cold pack and hot therapy is helpful for their joint pain. This can be an efficient way of treating discomfort from arthritis. Still, it’s important to remember to wait a few hours between temperature sessions and not immediately switch from cold to hot.

How Does Cold Therapy Help Arthritis?

While heat therapy will dilate your blood vessels, cold therapy does the opposite, constricting the vessels so that swelling is reduced. When the sensory receptors in your skin are stimulated, it can decrease pain signals that are being transmitted to the brain due to the inflammation in your joints.

This provides a numbing effect, which can feel very soothing if your joints are feeling inflamed and overheated.

When Can You Apply Cold Therapy?

Unlike heat, using cold therapy is often better used after an injury or activity that causes your joints to become more inflamed. Here are some good times to use cold therapy:

  • After overusing joints: If you accidentally overdo it while working in the yard, playing a sport, or going on a run, then cold therapy can be an effective way to reduce joint inflammation before it gets out of hand.
  • After swelling has occurred: Whether you’ve injured yourself, overdone it physically, or are just dealing with an arthritis flare-up, once the swelling has already taken place is probably the best time to apply some ice.
  • After intense activity: If you’ve just completed a physical activity that your body isn’t accustomed to, this is a good time to apply cold therapy to prevent swelling.

Is Hot or Cold Therapy Better?

As mentioned above, you’ll probably know intuitively whether cold or heat therapy will provide you with more relief. If not, try alternating between the two to see which works better for you, or consult your healthcare provider, as they’re the best person to help determine which treatment is better.

What Other Home Remedies Can Soothe Arthritis?

In addition to cold and heat therapies, there are many other ways to get relief from arthritis pain while you’re at home.

Here are some great ways to soothe tension, ease discomfort, and remain active:

Topicals

Balms, creams, and lotions are other options for soothing arthritis inflammation. There are a number of types of topicals that can be used, including:

  • NSAIDS: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) topicals contain anti-inflammatory medicines. One of the most common is diclofenac, an NSAID that can be applied to the skin.
  • Capsaicinoids: These topical products use the chemical that makes hot chili peppers so hot to numb an area of pain.
  • Lidocaine: Similar to the novocaine that’s used to numb your gums before dental work, lidocaine is applied directly to the skin to numb the area. It will usually feel tingly initially, and then the pain will gradually disappear.
  • Counterirritants: Products like menthol contain counterirritants. These are designed to deliver a feeling of extreme cold or heat to confuse the nerve receptors and allow the area where they’re applied to relax.

Massage

While having someone else give you a massage is a great feeling, you can also self-massage many of the joints that are typically affected by arthritis. Massaging joints can help break up any tension in the muscles that surround them and can help relax the area.

If your arthritis pain is an area that is harder to reach (like the lower back, shoulders, or neck), then it might be worth seeing a massage therapist.

Vitamin D

Rheumatoid arthritis has been associated with a deficiency in vitamin D, so it may be helpful to get your vitamin levels checked and, if your doctor recommends it, start taking a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin D doesn’t cure RA, but it may help improve symptoms by strengthening the bones that make up the joints. In addition to being available in supplement form, vitamin D levels can be brought through exposure to the sun and eating vitamin D-rich foods like fish.

Stay in Shape

One of the best ways to prevent arthritis from progressing as fast is by maintaining your physical fitness. Stretching, doing cardio, careful weight lifting, and learning some basic physical therapy exercises can make a big difference in keeping you mobile and maintaining the range of motion in your joints.

Keeping Arthritis Pain Under Control

If you’re dealing with debilitating arthritis pain that’s keeping you from accomplishing basic household tasks, it’s definitely worth talking with your healthcare provider about options for treatment.

However, if your pain is more nagging, annoying, or routine, it may be worth trying some home remedies to see if you can lessen your discomfort enough to sleep better, get more active, and improve your mood.

Sources:

Explain the pain – Is it osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis? | Harvard Health

Arthritis pain: Do's and don'ts | Mayo Clinic

When and Why to Apply Cold to an Arthritic Joint | Veritas Health

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