One of the easiest ways to manage wear and tear at home is with thermotherapy. But is heat good for osteoarthritis of the knee? Or is ice better?
Well, yes – heat therapy is a great way to relieve arthritis symptoms in your knee. Also, there are other options you can use, aside from a heating pad.
I’ll be discussing all that and more. Click on any of these bullets to easily navigate through the content:
How does heat help with knee osteoarthritis?
Heat therapy can alleviate knee osteoarthritis pain and stiffness in two ways.
First, the sensation of heat provides relief by overpowering the nerves that send pain signals to your brain. (1) This is why you’ll often feel the warmth of your heating pad over the discomfort.
Second, heat improves blood flow in the area. (2) This helps soothe your tight muscles and makes it easier for you to move your knee joint.
But, you can also benefit from combining both hot and cold therapies.
For example, you can use an interval of heat for 4 minutes followed by 2 minutes of cold packs, repeating this process three times. (3)
Or, you can just use ice for your knee instead. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of your preference – that’s completely normal. Don’t force yourself to use a specific modality if it’s not giving you the desired effects.
5 Heat therapy options for knee osteoarthritis
There are several ways you can apply heat therapy at home. Most of them are available at home or online, including:
1) Electric heating pad
This device usually has insulated wires in it that produce heat. Some heating pads need to be plugged into an electric outlet, while others are rechargeable.
Here’s how you can use one:
- Place the heating pad over your knee.
- Use the pad’s straps to keep it in place.
- Press the ON button to start heat therapy.
- Adjust the temperature settings to your desired warmth, if available.
- To prevent burns, set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes in case you fall asleep.
2) Heated gel packs
These often come in different shapes and sizes to accommodate your knee. Boil it in hot water for a few minutes, but let it cool for a bit before using it.
Follow this up by:
- Wrapping the gel pack with a thin towel – add more layers depending on your preference.
- Place the wrapped gel pack over your knee.
- Set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes.
3) Warm bathtub
This can be both therapeutic and relaxing self-care therapy. And while you’re at it, you can also do your knee mobility exercises to maximize results!
You can easily do this heat therapy by:
- Making sure that the water is comfortably warm to your liking.
- Soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Slowly bend and straighten your knee for 10 repetitions every couple of minutes.
4) Hot water bottle bag
An affordable home option that you can use. This product is usually made of rubber to improve its durability and help keep the warmth last longer.
Maximize its effectiveness by:
- Filling about 2/3 the amount of the rubber bottle bag with hot water.
- Squeeze the remaining air out and seal the rubber bag tightly with the stopper.
- Wipe the outer covering of the rubber bag to remove potential leaks.
- Place the rubber bag right on your knee and set the timer for 15 to 20 minutes.
5) Thermal knee brace
You can use this to both ease joint pain and add more support to your knee joint. Since it’s wearable tech, you can enjoy the benefits of heat therapy while doing activities like driving and walking.
If it’s a sleeve, just slip it up and go about your day. But if it’s a brace:
- Please put on the brace and wrap it with the straps.
- Walk around for a bit and check its comfort and fit.
- You shouldn’t feel any numbness, tingling, or loosening of the brace.
- Adjust accordingly. The brace should have a snug and secure feel.
Possible risks of heat therapy
As comforting as the warmth can be, too much of a good thing can cause unintentional complications, such as:
1) Skin burns
This can result from overexposure of your skin to heat therapy. It presents itself with redness and blisters that usually go away within 3 weeks. (4)
A more severe burn may appear with a dry, whitish appearance with minimal pain due to damaged nerves. (4) This may take a longer time to heal and might need medications from your doctor.
2) Toasted skin syndrome
These are skin rashes from damaged blood vessels due to repeated exposure to heat. It usually resolves on its own once you remove the heat source. (5)
This might happen when you stay in a hot tub for too long and you suddenly stand up. See, heat can temporarily widen your blood vessels, improving circulation around the target area. (2)
But with sudden position changes, your blood vessels might not constrict enough to maintain your blood pressure. (6) Hence, you might feel a little dizzy and take a few seconds to orient yourself.
Will a heating pad help knee osteoarthritis?
Yes, a heating pad can help knee osteoarthritis. It’s a great tool to have to relieve pain and joint stiffness that usually comes with osteoarthritis.
What is better for knee arthritis, heat or cold?
This depends on the type of knee arthritis. The better option for psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis might be cold therapy. But heat, or even mixing heat and cold therapies, may help osteoarthritis.
Learn more: What’s best for arthritic knees – heat or cold?
Does heat make osteoarthritis worse?
No, generally heat doesn’t make your knee osteoarthritis worse. Heat treatments would usually make your knee feel a lot better by promoting blood flow and pain management.
Related: What if ice makes knee pain worse?
Conclusion: Does heat therapy help arthritis pain in the knee?
Heat can indeed be a great addition to ease your daily occurrences of arthritic pain and stiffness.
For a chronic condition like knee osteoarthritis, you can amplify heat’s analgesic effect by matching it together with the knee exercises that your physical therapist recommends.
- Behrens, Barbara J et al. “Physical Agents: Theory and Practice.” F. A. Davis Company, Jul 11, 2005. https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=ndjaAAAAQBAJ&source=gbs_book_similarbooks
- Shen, Cimin et al. “Thermotherapy for knee osteoarthritis: A protocol for systematic review.” Medicine vol. 100,19 (2021): e25873. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000025873
- Denegar, Craig R et al. “Preferences for heat, cold, or contrast in patients with knee osteoarthritis affect treatment response.” Clinical interventions in aging vol. 5 199-206. 9 Aug. 2010, doi: 10.2147/cia.s11431
- Warby R, Maani CV. Burn Classification. [Updated 2021 Sep 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539773/
- Haleem, Zarah et al. “Erythema Ab Igne: A Rare Presentation of Toasted Skin Syndrome With the Use of a Space Heater.” Cureus vol. 13,2 e13401. 17 Feb. 2021, doi: 10.7759/cureus.13401
- Ringer M, Lappin SL. Orthostatic Hypotension. [Updated 2022 May 25]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448192/