When your joints start to ache and you realize a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-up is starting, you probably have several coping methods you use to deal with the challenge.
Some of the first things you may want to reach for when an RA flare-up starts—if you don’t already—is a heating pad and an ice pack.
How heat helps
Heat therapy has two main purposes:
- It increases circulation and blood flow to painful joints.
- It relaxes muscles, which can ease pain signals.
Heat therapy during an RA flare-up may be most useful when you want to ease stiffness, such as first thing in the morning.
There are two ways to use heat therapy: dry heat (heating pads or patches, or even just warm clothes fresh from the dryer) or moist heat (a warm bath or warm compresses).
Another form of heat therapy is using a hot wax (paraffin) bath—it’s especially useful when hand or foot joints are painful. You can find paraffin bath supplies from beauty supply stores and major retailers.
Apply heat for 10 to 20 minutes, up to 2 or 3 times a day. Avoid using heat on joints that are very swollen; in that case, cold therapy is a better bet.
How cold therapy eases pain
Cold therapy’s main purpose is to reduce swelling and numb pain signals from the affected area. It can be helpful especially when an RA flare-up brings inflamed, swollen joints.
Cold therapy is easy to access through many simple means, like a cold pack (reusable or disposable), a bag of frozen vegetables, or a towel wetted with cold water.
Limit cold therapy sessions to 10 to 15 minutes, and use a protective layer between your skin and the cold pack to prevent damaging your skin. You can use cold therapy a few times a day, but allow your skin to return to normal temperature before starting a new session.
Also, if you have Raynaud’s syndrome or nerve damage, avoid using cold therapy on the part of your body that’s affected.
Many people choose to use a combination of heat and cold therapy to treat painful joints. For example, once the worst of your RA flare-up is over and you can return to exercising, you can use heat therapy to warm up your joints before exercise, then cold therapy to soothe sore muscles afterward.