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Step 6: Heat and cold therapy
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Heat and cold treatments are well-known to reduce the pain, stiffness, and occasional swelling associated with osteoarthritis. But this is generally temporary. There is no "set" formula for therapy. Heat works better for some individuals, whereas others favor cold.

Heat often is used to relieve pain or relax muscles before the start of exercise.

  • Heating pads or hot packs can be positioned over stiff joints. Some people prefer "moist heat" in the form of warm towels, a warm shower or bath, or a heated whirlpool or hot tub.
  • Other heat treatments include ultrasound and immersion of painful hands into warm wax. All are able to bring soothing heat to sore joints.
  • Heat should be applied at a comfortable temperature and seems to be most beneficial when used over the muscles adjacent to the joint.

Cold can lessen pain in a sore joint by numbing the local tissues.

  • Cold may be applied as ice or a reusable cold pack.
  • Ice and cold packs never should be placed directly on the skin, as they are likely to cause skin damage. Instead, ice and cold packs should be wrapped in a towel before they are applied.

You should take the following safety precautions when using heat or cold treatments:

  • Never apply heat or cold for more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Allow skin to return to normal temperature before repeating applications.
  • Never combine heat or cold with the use of creams, as this can increase the likelihood of burns.
  • Do not make joints overly cold, since numbness increases the risk of overusing the joint.


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Review Date: 12/24/2012
Reviewed By: Ariel D. Teitel, MD, MBA, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, NYU Langone Medical Center. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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