Many people, when faced with joint pain, will turn to either heat or cold to relieve their symptoms. But did you know that using both in an alternating fashion can provide more relief for osteoarthritis sufferers than just one method? This type of treatment, known as a contrast bath, can be done as often as desired and can even be incorporated into your daily routine.

If you wake up feeling sore and stiff, a good first step is to take a warm shower to loosen things up. "The warm water helps relax tissues and relieve stiff joints," says Rose Mary CrayneRose Mary Crayne, a San Antonio occupational therapist, who cautions against using water that's too hot: "[Too hot water] dilates blood vessels, and can cause or worsen swelling. The cold water counteracts the tendency to swell. The alternating warm and cool water acts like a pump to reduce swelling." When the joints loosen up, she explains, you have an increased range of motion.

According to Crayne, most of her clients do contrast baths at least twice a day, usually first thing in the morning and once just before bed, as this often prevents them from being awakened in the night by pain. But you can do them three to five times a day or more. "I've never heard of anyone overdosing on contrast baths," she says. "My preferred method for contrast baths for arthritis clients is three-minutes-warm-one-minute-cold cycles." Some of her clients do a more modified contrast bath, usually while washing dishes or during their morning grooming routines. Besides showering and bathing, people can also apply heat and cold packs to their affected areas. Dry heat, such as heat lamps, can also be used.

As good as contrast baths are for arthritis relief, there are some caveats. Generally, the risks involve using cold or heat that's too extreme. If your skin looks extra red or even purplish after treatment, or has blisters, your treatment was probably too strong. Take care to shield your skin from a cold or hot pack by placing a towel on the outside of the pack. If you have poor circulation, using cold packs is not recommended. And refrain from using either treatment if you have open cuts or sores on your skin.


Rose Mary Crayne, MS, OTR

Arthritis Foundation