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Cold Therapy as Arthritis Treatment: What to Know

Cold therapy for arthritis has gained popularity in recent years, with many claiming it as their go-to home remedy. Below, we explore the science, tips, and options for cryotherapy for arthritis.

If you live with stiffness and pain as a daily reality, at-home cryotherapy for arthritis is a soothing, scientifically supported way to find relief.

You’re already applying cold therapy any time you grab a bag of frozen peas to soothe a swollen or painful body part. But — the next time getting out of a chair or walking to the store becomes a source of discomfort, it might help to know that cold packs are an easily available option. Applying a cold therapy pack to swollen joints can help you bring down swelling. Plus, they’re easy to administer, allowing you to get on with your day.

Not All Cold Therapy Is Equal

at home cold therapy machine for arthritis

There are different types of cold therapy, including ice baths, cold showers, massages with ice cubes, and prescribed cold therapy machines. Heat therapy is often mentioned along with ice therapy, and some people find one more comfortable than the other. But both can have a place in your arthritis treatment plan and may work better in combination than apart.

Below, you’ll learn how cryotherapy works, the best ways to give yourself cold therapy at home, and how to choose an ice pack that works for your body.

Does Cold Therapy Help With Arthritis?

Cold therapy for arthritis is a safe, well-tolerated, and effective treatment for arthritis pain and swelling, particularly in the joints. Applying ice to a swollen, stiff, or painful joint reduces blood flow to the area and can have a numbing sensation that reduces the pain associated with arthritis.

2019 study using rats found that applying cold therapy to a specific area of the body improved rheumatoid arthritis symptoms like inflammation and swelling. While it’s not definite whether these benefits transfer to humans, the study suggests a lot of promise for cryotherapy for arthritis as a way to manage discomfort at home.

Types of Cold Therapy

Cold therapy comes in several different forms. These include:

    • An ice pack. For milder pain, you can reach into the back of your freezer and use a bag of frozen peas as an ice pack. You can also buy more specialized ice packs from your local pharmacy filled with a cooling gel, which provides longer-lasting cold relief. 
    • An ice massage.If you need deeper relief, you can massage the swollen or painful area using an ice cube. Try freezing water in a paper cup to cover a wider surface area for farther-reaching arthritis pain or for larger joints like your shoulder.
    • An ice bath.A maximum of 15 minutes in a bath filled with ice and water can provide full-body pain and inflammation relief.
  • A cold mist shower. You might not have a misting option on your showerhead, but a low-pressure, cold shower may offer safe and effective cryotherapy for arthritis for home pain relief.
  • A prescribed cold therapy machine. If you experience persistent or severe inflammation from arthritis, your doctor might prescribe a cold therapy machine that pumps chilled water to a “cryo cuff” that you wrap around a painful area.
  • At different times, some methods of cold therapy for arthritis may be more convenient than others. You might find more relief in an ice bath than from a locally applied ice pack, for example. However, be aware that you may still feel pain when you’re out and about or don’t have time to run a bath.

    It may take some trial and error before you settle on the pain treatment solution that works best for your body.

    Hot vs Cold Therapy For Arthritis: Which Is Better?

    DonJoy cold therapy machine for at home use

    You can use heat or cold to manage arthritis pain. Each has its own pros and cons in different circumstances, so it’s best to use whichever pain treatment method provides the most effective relief for how you feel at the time:

    • Cold therapy.Cryotherapy for arthritis works better for acute pain and swelling due to its numbing effect, while also bringing down inflammation  
    • Heat therapy. This arthritis care technique provides more relief if your muscles are tired or achy. For example, if you’ve been out walking and arthritis symptoms start to become evident without causing painful swelling, applying heat therapy may be better a better way to soothe your muscles.

    Keeping both hot and cold therapy for arthritis in your arsenal is a good idea. By using heat or ice for arthritis symptoms as and when you need them, you can guide your body to a lifestyle that’s more comfortable and less disruptive.

    How to Give Yourself Cold Therapy at Home

    cryotherapy at home with a Breg ice machine

    The best way to apply cryotherapy at home for arthritis depends on which method you use. Here are your best options: 

    Ice Pack

    If you’re applying a cold pack or putting ice near the skin, make sure you wrap the frozen vegetables, bag of ice, or specialized cooling pack in a dry towel first. This protects your skin from freezer burn. Then, hold the pack on the affected area for more than 20 minutes. 

    Ice Bath

    Fill your bathtub with water and ice. Then immerse the area experiencing pain for 20-30 minutes. If you plan to take a full-body ice bath, limit the immersion time to 15 minutes so your body temperature doesn’t drop too far.

    To reduce the risk of hypothermia when you exit the bath, be sure to:

    • Put on a hat and gloves as soon as you’re out.
    • Take off any wet swim clothes and get yourself dry.
    • Drink some tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. A warm beverage will bring your body temperature back up within the normal, healthy range. 
    • Eating food can also gently increase your body temperature, especially if you eat something containing sugar.
    • Sit down somewhere warm, or walk around (if the original inflammation isn’t too painful).
    • Don’t try to undo the chill with a hot shower. A sudden temperature change affects blood flow and could cause unconsciousness.

    What’s the Best Temperature for Cold Therapy for Arthritis?

    There’s no general scientific consensus about how cold cryotherapy should be. Ultimately, it’s down to what is comfortable for you and what provides the most relief. It may take a few sessions to find your preferred temperature.

    If your doctor recommends or prescribes using a cold therapy machine, they will be able to explain the temperature settings for your particular model.

    The Best Cold Therapy Machines for Arthritis

    Ice is a good remedy for arthritis pain. However, people with chronic or severe arthritis symptoms may need more prolonged or controllable cryotherapy for arthritis. That’s where cold therapy machines with cryo cuffs come in.

    The cryo cuffs wrap around the affected area and direct cold fluids into the surrounding material, providing a therapeutic dose of cold and some compression to boot.

    Cold Therapy Machines Are Effective for Arthritis

    If your doctor prescribes the use of a cold therapy machine, you have a range of options available. Studies have confirmed their effectiveness for reducing pain and swelling over and above just cold therapy without compression. In another study, cold compression reduced patients’ reliance on injected pain medication after knee surgery, letting them progress to oral pain relief sooner than those who did not use cold compression.

    Cryotherapy machines are a more expensive cold therapy for arthritis than a bag of frozen vegetables, but there are choices for every budget.

    1.Breg Polar Care Wave

    This system provides cold therapy and compression through anatomic wraps. It's a motorized machine that comes in a compact and quiet unit, so it's ideal for home use as well as facility use.

    It's designed to treat acute or post-surgical injuries to reduce swelling and pain, making it the best medical ice machine. Breg is the second-largest orthopedic brace provider in the US. Their mission is to elevate and simplify patient care, which they've done with this system.

    2.Breg Polar Care Kodiak

    Breg Polar Care Kodiak

    This cryotherapy machine applies 6-8 hours of cold therapy to reduce inflammation and pain. It also reduces swelling by applying compression therapy. This is a highly effective arthritis cold compress.

    The machine doesn’t cool the water to ice temperature, so it’s kinder to the skin. Patients can use it to find relief for as long as they need.

    3.DonJoy Iceman Clear 3

    DonJoy IceMan Clear3 Cold Therapy System

    This cryotherapy for arthritis machine works like the others, except the manufacturers claim that it uses semi-recirculation technology that allows for a more consistent temperature. 

    4.Game Ready Ice Machines GRPro 2.1 Cold & Compression Unit

    Game Ready Ice Machine Review (and some less expensive alternatives)

    Game Ready offers a range of cold and compression machines that are of a high enough quality that many leading athletes use them. However, the price tag reflects this quality and fame — they don’t come cheap. This machine is more often associated with high-end sports rehabilitation than arthritis relief. Still, if you have room in your budget, this is a great option to consider. Explore our guide,Game Ready Ice Machine Review (and Some Cheaper Alternatives) for additional insights. 

    For more detailed explanations about the benefits of the top cryotherapy machines, explore theBest Cold Therapy Machines for Faster Recovery guide. 

    Cold Therapy for Arthritis - In Summary

    At-home cold therapy is an accessible, affordable way to keep arthritis pain in check, with different types and durations of treatment available to fit with any lifestyle. 

    Whether using a specialized ice pack helps you feel better or you receive a prescription for longer sessions with a cryotherapy machine, cold therapy for arthritis can help you manage arthritis symptoms and recover more comfortably from injuries.

    If you regularly feel discomfort in your joints, it may be time to consider at-home cryotherapy as a way to make your days (and nights) more comfortable.

    For more helpful recovery and injury prevention resources, read on:

    Top Benefits of Cold Compression

    Best Knee Compression Sleeves

    Best Hinged Knee Brace

    Best Neck Stretchers for Pain Relief

    Best Back Braces for Quicker Recovery

    Best Shoulder Braces for Pain Relief

    Best Shoulder Compression Sleeves: What to Look For