When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling

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Interested in trying warm compress or ice packs to relieve arthritic pain and swelling? Here is important information you should know.

RELATED: Arthritis Medication, Therapies, and Self-Care or Arthritis Medications: Your A-Z Drug Guide

In this article:

  1. What Is a Compress?
  2. When Should You Use a Hot Compress?
  3. When Should You Use a Cold Compress?
  4. Where Can I Buy a Warm or Cold Compress?
  5. Why Is It Important to Know the Difference between the Uses of Hot Compress vs. Cold Compress?
  6. How Do You Make a Warm Compress at Home?
  7. How Do You Make a Cold Compress at Home?
  8. How Do You Use a Warm Compress?
  9. How Do You Use a Cold Compress?
  10. Who Needs to Use a Cold or Warm Compress?

Warm Compress Vs. Cold Compress For Arthritic Pain and Swelling Management

What Is a Compress?

A compress is any material, a cloth, for example, applied with pressure to an area of the body. It’s usually held in place for a period of time, and it can either be hot or cold, or dry or wet.

In some cases, compresses are also infused with medication or herbal remedies.

When Should You Use a Hot Compress?

Heat has a certain soothing and relaxing effect. When a warm compress is applied to an area of the body, heat:

  • can relax tight muscles decreasing pain brought by muscle tensions and;
  • dilate blood vessels causing an increase in blood flow.

Applying a warm compress to a painful arthritic joint can reduce the stiffness of the joint, relax the muscles surrounding it, and stimulate blood circulation improving the joint’s range.

When Should You Use a Cold Compress?

A cold compress is generally used to:

  • ease pain by numbing the affected area and;
  • reduce swelling and inflammation.

When your arthritis causes a burning sensation to your joints, applying a cold compress or an ice pack can numb the pain. If your joints are swollen (which often causes joint stiffness and pain), a cold compress can help reduce the swelling and the pain.

Where Can I Buy a Warm or Cold Compress?

close up shot of pharmacy | When To Use a Cold or Warm Compress For Pain and Swelling | Hot Compress Vs. Cold Compress
A look at the inside of a pharmacy

Warm and cold compresses are available over-the-counter at most pharmacies near you.

Why Is It Important to Know the Difference between the Uses of Hot Compress vs. Cold Compress?

Using heat and cold therapy to manage arthritic pain can provide excellent relief. The challenge is knowing which one to choose and when.

Both cold and warm compresses have their appropriate use and using either for the wrong purpose may worsen your condition. If your joint is already red and irritated, do not apply heat; if your joint is stiff and movement is limited do not apply cold.

Remember that heat relaxes muscles, cold reduces inflammation and pain.

How Do You Make a Warm Compress at Home?

If you don’t want to purchase heat packs from a pharmacy, you can make your own warm compress at home. There are actually several ways you can do this.

Basic Warm Compress

  • Start by heating some water in a clean pot or filling half of a small basin with hot water from a water dispenser.
  • Add tap water until you get the ideal temperature.
  • Soak a clean towel in the basin and squeeze out the water.
  • Apply the warm towel on the affected area.

Aromatic Warm Compress

  • Fill a clean tube sock with some dry, uncooked rice, oats, or beans.
  • Add a choice of herbs or essential oils in the mix to add fragrance to the compress. Lavender, sage, mint, cinnamon, or peppermint can give a more soothing effect.
  • Remember to leave enough room at the opening of the sock to tie it into a knot.
  • If you want to permanently use this compress, you can sew it closed. To avoid having a hard compress, do not seal the sock too close to its contents.
  • After sealing the compress, heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Check if you like how warm the compress is and take it out or heat it up for another 10 seconds.
  • Continue heating it for 10 seconds until you’re happy with the temperature.
  • Apply the compress to the painful area. If it’s uncomfortably hot, remove it and let it cool for a few seconds then re-apply.

Steamed Warm Compress

  • Soak a clean washcloth in water until it’s dripping wet.
  • Place the cloth in a resealable bag like a Ziploc bag. Fold the cloth properly to make sure it gets heated up evenly.
  • With the bag left open, heat it on high in a microwave for about 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Heat the bag for another 10 seconds until you get the temperature you desire.

How Do You Make a Cold Compress at Home?

If you store-bought ice pack aren’t available at hand, you can try these DIY ice packs at home:

Basic Cold Compress

  • Soak a towel in cold water and place it in a sealable bag.
  • Leave the bag in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Rubbing Alcohol Ice Pack 

Adding alcohol to water will keep it from freezing completely resulting in a squishy, comfortable cold compress.

  • Mix 1 1/2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of rubbing alcohol in a sealable bag.
  • Place the bag in the freezer for several hours or overnight.

Dish Soap Ice Pack 

Freezing sealed dish soap yields to a gel-like or a firmer ice pack.

  • Fill a sealable bag with dish soap.
  • Place the bag in the freezer. Leave it for two hours to achieve a flexible, squishy, gel-like texture. Beyond that, you get an icier, firmer ice pack.

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How Do You Use a Warm Compress?

woman putting hot pack on back of neck | When To Use a Cold or Warm Compress For Pain and Swelling | Hot compress
A woman places a hot compress on the back of her neck.

When using a warm compress or any other heat therapy devices like a heat pack, hot water bottle, and the likes, remember the following suggestions:

  • Avoid hurting or burning your skin with uncomfortably hot compresses.
  • You can place a towel or cloth between your skin and the compress to prevent burns.
  • Do not apply heat to cuts and injured body parts.
  • Do not apply heat beyond 20 minutes at a time.

How Do You Use a Cold Compress?

Remember the following when using cold therapy devices:

  • Place a towel or cloth in between your skin and the compress to avoid irritation and skin damage.
  • Do not use cold therapy if you have circulatory issues.
  • Do not apply a cold compress beyond 20 minutes. Remove the compress if the skin already feels too cold.
  • Immediately remove the cold source once the skin becomes very numb, blotchy, bright red, or blistered.

When using either a warm or cold compress, always check your skin for change in color, rashes, or blisters to be safe.

Who Needs to Use a Cold or Warm Compress?

Cold and warm compresses are common nursing pain reliefs that can be used to help alleviate pain and/or inflammation. Usually, these are recommended for people with:

  • sports injuries (e.g. muscle strain, ankle sprain)
  • shin splints
  • acute injuries that happened within the last 48 hours
  • sore muscles
  • joint pain
  • neck stiffness
  • spasms
  • back pain
  • joint pain

 

Here is a quick video on the difference between hot and cold therapy from AdventHealth Florida:

How often you should try such therapies for your joints? Applying a warm compress or ice packs at least twice a day can offer the best relief from inflammation and pain.

The American College of Rheumatology also suggests the application of five to 10-minute massages to painful areas within the first two days the pain started to relieve discomfort. Heat therapy can help relieve pain that lasts over 2 days.

It is also important for adults to consume a healthy mix of daily vitamins. We recommend this Vitamin D3 supplement.

If you have any questions about using a warm or cold compress, let us know in the comments section below.

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