Heat therapy for rheumatoid arthritis

Heat helps improve your pain tolerance and relaxes muscles, both of which can reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Heat treatment remains a standard part of the physical therapist's practice. But you don't need to visit a physical therapist to reap the benefits of heat therapy. Here are some techniques you can use at home.

Warm bath or shower. A hot tub or a bathtub equipped with water jets can closely duplicate the warm-water massage of whirlpool baths used by professionals—for most people, the bathtub works nearly as well. Soaking for 15 to 20 minutes in a warm bath allows the weight-bearing muscles to relax.

A warm shower can also help lessen the stiffness of rheumatoid arthritis. You can upgrade your shower with an adjustable shower-head massager that's inexpensive and easy to install. It should deliver a steady, fine spray or a pulsing stream, usually with a few options in between.

After a warm shower or bath, dress warmly to prolong the benefit.

Heating pad. A heating pad is another good idea, but keep in mind that moist heat penetrates more deeply than dry heat. Although you can purchase hot packs and moist/dry heating pads, a homemade hot pack works just as well. Heat a damp folded towel in a microwave oven for 20 to 60 seconds (depending on the oven and the towel's thickness) or in an oven set at 300° F for five to 10 minutes (again, this depends on the oven and the towel's thickness). To prevent burns, always test the heated towel on the inside of your arm before applying it to a joint: it should feel comfortably warm, not hot. To be extra safe, wrap the heated, moist towel in a thin, dry one before placing it on the skin.

Paraffin bath. Some therapists recommend a paraffin bath. You dip your hands or feet into wax melted in an electric appliance that maintains a safe temperature. After the wax hardens, the therapist wraps the treated area in a plastic sheet and blanket to retain the heat. Treatments generally take about 20 minutes, after which the wax is peeled off. Paraffin bath kits are also available for home use, but talk with your physical therapist for recommendations and cautions before you buy one.