Cold Therapy for Arthritis

Cold can help decrease pain, decrease swelling, and help reduce muscle spasms. Arthritic joints feel better and are able to function better when there is less swelling and pain.

Cold decreases swelling through vasoconstriction (or shrinking) of the blood vessels. When the blood vessels are constricted, this decreases blood flow and blocks the release of histamine; blocking histamine decreases the feeling of pain.

Cold also stimulates sensory receptors that help to block the transmission of pain impulses that travel along the nerves. This temporarily increases a person’s pain threshold in the affected area.

When Cold Therapy is Effective

Patients who are unsure of whether to use cold or not should ask their doctor or physiotherapist. Cold therapy can offer benefits in the following scenarios:

  • For 24 – 78 hours following injury or orthopedic surgery
  • To decrease swelling in arthritic joints
  • To decrease pain in arthritic joints
  • To decrease muscle spasm

When to be Careful with Cold Therapy

Cold therapy should be used with caution or possibly avoided in the following scenarios:

  • Compromised circulation or sensation
  • Raynaud’s Phenomenon is present
    (blanching or discolouration of fingers when exposed to cold)
  • Allergy to cold
  • History of frostbite

If one or more of these apply to you, or you are concerned about how to safely apply cold therapy, check with your doctor or physiotherapist.

Its important to keep checking in on the area(s) being treated with cold therapy and stop if there are signs that it is being over-done.

Key Points for Safe and Effective Treatment

Its important to remember a few key points to maximize the benefits of cold therapy and avoid over-doing it:

Continuously monitor for signs of over-cooling: The skin being exposed to cold will redden over the course of a normal treatment. Check it frequently for signs of over-cooling: blanched, white skin. If there are signs of over-cooling, it’s time to stop and give the affected area a rest.

Apply the RICE method to decrease swelling: The RICE Method
(Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) is an effective combination that will help further decrease swelling.

Rest between treatments: Rest at least 2 hours between cold therapy treatments

Take care with ice and cold packs: Don’t fall asleep with an ice pack on!

How to Apply Cold Therapy

There are a number of methods and techniques that can be used to apply cold therapy treatments at home: