Updated July 2021
Whether arthritis or injury is causing your joint discomfort, 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 treatments for joint relief; but when should each of them be used? Here’s how to know whether to use ice or heat for joint pain.
The appropriate treatment for pain depends on its source. Joint pain may be the result of:
Arthritis, one of the most common causes of joint discomfort, 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 – which causes internal and external inflammation.
- Septic arthritis – a joint infection.
- Gout – a condition in which acid builds up in a joint and causes inflammation.
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How to Treat Joint Pain
Whether to use a hot or cold treatment to provide relief 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 T-shirt 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.
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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.