Heat has long been used to provide temporary relief of arthritis pain, and is used in many different forms. Contrast baths, whirlpools, electric pads, microwaveable gel packs, hydrocollator packs, infrared lamps, and hot showers are some of the different techniques used. Even warm tap water probably will meet some of your needs for heat therapy at home.
Heat can provide temporary relief of pain and stiffness, and can prepare you for physical activity or exercise. For example, morning stiffness Electrical Heat Therapy is a common problem for many people with rheumatoid arthritis. Because your body has been still during the night you may need special help to get going in the morning. The following combination of techniques using heat can reduce the length and the severity of morning stiffness:
- Sleep in a sleeping bag (which helps retain body heat) or with an electric blanket (following the manufacturer’s instructions).
- Take your aspirin or other anti-inflammatory medication an hour before you get out of bed in the morning. (Keep a few crackers at your bedside to take with the medication to avoid stomach irritation.)
- Take a warm shower or bath immediately after you get up.
- Then do limbering-up exercises after your shower or bath while you still feel warm.
Safety is important in choosing the form of heat you use. You should take great care to avoid burns or electric shocks. Heat must be used with much caution on any area of the body with poor circulation or where you cannot feel heat or cold normally. It should not be used over areas where your skin is fragile or broken.
Only mild heat is necessary to get results. You are aiming for a temperature just slightly above body temperature, and you do not have to apply heat for a long time. You will get full benefit by using heat for 20 minutes each time.
Moist heat is any technique in which water is used to conduct the heat, such as a bath or shower or hydrocollator packs. People with arthritis prefer moist rather than dry heat, such as a heating pad. Moist heat penetrates more deeply than dry. You will have to try both and see which is more effective and convenient for you.
Heating pads are available which provide either moist or dry heat, but they should be chosen and used with care. Make sure the pad is approved by the Underwriter’s Laboratory. Look for those which have temperature control switches; those without temperature settings get hotter and hotter until you switch them off.
When using a pad, never lie on top of it and make sure you do not fall asleep while it is on. Severe burns can result! It may be wise to use a timer during the treatment. Check the instructions on use carefully. Regularly inspect the pad for any cracks in the plastic cover.
Hydrocollator packs are canvas bags containing silicone gel which retain heat for a long time. You can buy them in different shapes at pharmacies. Some people like them because they lose heat more slowly than most wet compresses. The pack is heated in water, wrapped in 8 to 10 layers of heavy toweling and placed over the painful joint.
The pack is heated in a large pot of water and placed on heavy towels. Place the surface with the thickest layer of toweling over the part to be treated.
Keep in mind that hydrocollator packs do have drawbacks. They are not practical if heat is needed for several joints, because each pack can be used for only one part at a time. They are also cumbersome to use and may be too heavy placed over a painful joint. If your hands are affected by your arthritis, it may be difficult for you to remove the heavy pack from the water with the tongs. So you may need help. Again, you must be very careful about burns. If you decide to try such a pack, follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Microwaveable gel packs are popular. Follow the instructions carefully or else the bag containing the gel may leak… or even worse explode and cause serious burns!
Physical therapists sometimes use melted paraffin as a means of applying heat, particularly to the hands. There are units available for home use as well. Because they involve high temperatures, paraffin baths should be used with caution. Patients with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis involving the hands often find paraffin to be helpful.
You can buy nylon and spandex gloves which can reduce morning stiffness of the hands for some people when worn at night. The gloves are available in both men’s and women’s sizes.
It is important to wear adequate, warm clothing in cold weather. Some people find that knitted, woolen or fleece pullover cuffs on painful joints, especially the knees, ankles and elbows are helpful in keeping the joints warm and more comfortable in cold weather.
Some people with arthritis find that heat does not help them. In fact, the reverse is often best-cold compresses. Cold may be especially effective when active inflammation produces severe pain and joint swelling. Only trying different modalities will enable you to find out which is best for you.
It is easy to make a cold pack by filling a small plastic bag with a few ice cubes. A bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel can be used. Place any cold pack over the painful joint with a layer of terry cloth toweling in between. The same precautions that apply to the use of heat should be observed when using cold. The maximum benefit is achieved in less than 20 minutes. You may wish to repeat this application several times a day.
For many people with arthritis an effective approach is alternating warm and cold water applications, a process called contrast baths. It is most useful for a hand or foot which can be dipped in a large pot filled with water. If you decide to give it a try, use a thermometer to check temperatures.
- Fill one container 2/3 full with 110 degree F water.
- Fill a second container 2/3 full with 65 degree F water.
- Put your hands or feet completely into the warm water for three minutes; then put them into the cold water for one minute.
- Repeat step #3 two more times.
- End the treatment with three more minutes in the warm water; then carefully dry the hands or feet.