If your joints start to ache after a long day, try warming them up instead of popping a pill. Heat relaxes the muscles around painful joints and increases blood circulation, which can help you feel better fast. When a hot bath or shower isn’t convenient, try one of these options.
Electric Heating Pad
How It Works: Plug it in, wrap in cloth, apply for 20 minutes.
Best For: “They’re one of the best ways to heat a large body part – a hip, back, shoulder, knee – especially before activities like stretching,” says Doreen M. Stiskal, PhD, department of physical therapy chair at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
Pros: They’re easy to use and store; heat up quickly.
Cons: It’s easy to burn yourself, says John Reveille, MD, director of the division of rheumatology and clinical immunogenetics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Start on low for 20 minutes.
Capsaicin Cream or Gel
How They Work: These creams contain the chemical that makes cayenne pepper hot. “The chemical works by initially irritating the sensory nerve endings in the skin,” says Stiskal. “The body then responds by reducing pain signals throughout the nervous system.”
Best For: Temporary relief of chronic muscle and joint pain
Pros: They’re over-the-counter, fairly inexpensive and won’t stain clothing.
Cons: Capsaicin might irritate sensitive skin.
Air-activated Heat Pack
How It Works: Open the air-tight packet, and the chemicals – iron powder, vermiculite, cellulose, charcoal, salt – mix with air, producing heat for about eight hours.
Best For: Soothing joints or muscles
Pros: Easily portable for relief anywhere
Cons: Single-use product
How It Works: Pop it in the microwave.
Best For: Aches that don’t require heat for a full 20 minutes
Pros: Versatile and reusable
Cons: Easy to overheat; as it cools down, heat may be inconsistent.
How It Works: Plug in to melt paraffin. Dip your hand or foot several times to coat with wax, wrap in a plastic bag to retain heat for about 20 minutes, then peel off wax.
Best For: Sore hands or feet
Pros: Heat surrounds fingers or toes.
Cons: Can take at least a half-hour to melt paraffin, which can get very hot.
CAUTION: TOO HOT
Most heat therapies are low-risk and easy on the wallet. But, Dr. Reveille says to remember these two important caveats:
Don’t Use Heat During a Flare. Heating widens the capillaries in the tissue surrounding your joints, which increases swelling and pain. Use ice packs during acute flares to reduce swelling and inflammation.
Don’t Burn Yourself. Use common sense with any heat therapy – if it feels uncomfortable or your skin is turning red, it’s too hot.
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