Should you use heat or ice for joint pain?

Whether arthritis or an injury is causing your joint pain, you’ve probably received varying — and maybe even contradictory — advice on how to manage it at home. Hot and cold therapy are two of the most common joint pain treatments; but when should each of them be used? Here’s how to know whether to use ice or heat for joint pain.

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Types of Joint Pain

The appropriate treatment for pain depends on its source. Joint pain may be the result of:

  • An injury, such as a sprain, strain, or fracture
  • A viral infection
  • Cancer
  • Tendonitis
  • Bursitis

Arthritis, one of the most common reasons for joint pain, encompasses more than 100 conditions. Among the most typical forms are:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis – an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy joint tissue and causes inflammation
  • Osteoarthritis – deterioration of the cartilage that protects bones and joints
  • Psoriatic arthritis – results in internal and external inflammation
  • Septic arthritis – a joint infection
  • Gout – a condition in which acid builds up in a joint and causes inflammation

How to Treat Joint Pain

Whether a hot or cold treatment can ease your joint pain depends on the source of the pain.

Heat increases blood flow to an affected area, which promotes healing and relaxes muscle spasms. Cold restricts blood flow, reducing swelling and inflammation. It also numbs pain around the affected area.

Generally speaking, ice is better for inflammatory pain. You can tell if a joint is inflamed if it’s red, swollen, or warm to the touch. Relieve inflamed joints by applying a gel ice pack, cold pack, or even a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel to the injured area.

For joint pain not caused by inflammation — such as osteoarthritis — opt for heat. The Arthritis Foundation recommends placing a moist heating pad wrapped in a layer of cloth on the affected joint or soaking it in a warm bath. Heat treatments also can be effective for rheumatoid arthritis when you’re not having a flare-up.

Finding Treatment for Severe Joint Pain

If you have severe joint pain or a chronic condition that interferes with your daily life, talk to your doctor about medical treatments or physical therapy that can help to make managing your pain easier.

UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. Call 1-866-987-ORTHO (6784) for more information or to make an appointment.

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.