Which is Best for Your Swollen Knee? Ice or Heat Therapy?

Which is Best for Your Swollen Knee? Ice or Heat Therapy?

Your knee can swell up from a number of causes, including acute injury, infection, arthritis, gout, and an autoimmune condition. Thermal therapy is often used to treat symptoms, especially pain, but it's not always a good idea to use both heat and ice (contrasting therapy) for all causes of pain and swelling. So the question is, what is best for knee pain, ice or heat?

Do Home Cold Plunges Help Knee Pain?

Yes, they do help some types of pain, but not all of them. Here's a closer look at which therapy goes with which pain.

Ice Therapy

Ice is the best option for sudden knee injuries, like twisting your knee on the tennis court. Essentially any injury that causes swelling and inflammation benefits from ice packs and cold temperature exposure.

Cold therapy constricts the blood vessels in the injured area, which reduces blood flow and lessens swelling and pain. This also applies when you have flare-ups of pain in arthritic joints. If you apply heat in this instance, the blood vessels dilate, which increases blood flow and swelling, which you don't want.

Ice is also the best option to ease achy muscles in your knees and stiffness after an intense workout or sports event, like a football match. It reduces muscle stiffness and increases recovery time, so your knee muscles are good to go for the next practice session.

How to Use Ice

You should apply ice to an injured or stiff knee as soon as possible, and continue to ice your knee for the following 24 - 48 hours.

The recommended time for ice exposure varies. Some people prescribe the 20/20 rule, which is 20 minutes of ice on and 20 minutes of ice off. Others say that 30 minutes on and 10 minutes off is the optimum time for cold temperatures to work. Then there are the people who believe the opposite, which is 10-15 minutes on and 30 minutes off.

The 20-30 minutes is a good compromise between the other two. Try to apply ice four times a day, but if the pain is severe you can do it more often.

Time is not set in stone. If your knee starts to hurt from the cold or turns bright red after 10 minutes, remove the ice pack. Don't go over 30 minutes as this can cause skin damage and even result in frostbite.

Ice Applications

There are virtually no restrictions when it comes to the way in which you apply ice to your swollen knee. The only thing you shouldn't do is apply direct contact to your skin.

What Can You Use?

The three easiest and cheapest applications are:

  1. Ice cubes in a dish towel or hand towel.
  2. Frozen veggies, especially peas, and sweetcorn. Frozen veg actually works better than ice cubes in a towel because they can be molded to your knee joint, covering a greater area.
  3. A wet towel is placed in the freezer for 30 or so minutes. This is also effective because you can wrap your entire knee in the towel to relieve dull pain and sore muscles.

You can also buy ice blocks or gel or cold packs to apply to tight muscles and other painful areas.

Heat Therapy

Heat treatment tends to be best for tight, stiff muscles, joint pain, especially in arthritic joints, and soft tissue injuries, especially chronic pain conditions that affect your back. It eases pain in stiff joints, soothes muscle spasms, and allows for a greater range of motion.

It's not typically used for sudden traumatic injuries because the blood vessels carry an oxygen-rich blood supply to the injury which increases swelling. However, it can be used after you've iced your knee for 24 - 48 hours.

Heat is also good for daily or chronic injuries, including niggling old injuries and joint problems like arthritis pain. Chronic pain like this is soothed through the application of heat.

How to Use Heat

Like ice therapy, the heat source should never come into contact with the skin around the knee. In the worst-case scenario, you could get thermal burns or blisters (basically first or second-degree burns).

According to health professionals, heat should never be applied for longer than 20 minutes. The recommended time is 10 - 20 minutes but if your knee is burning uncomfortably or getting very red, you should remove the heat source immediately. Heat can be applied throughout the day, but be smart about it. If your knee is still hot and perhaps a bit sore, extend the period between applications.

Heat Applications

Like ice applications, there are many sources of heat you can use in heat therapy, including dry heat and moist heat therapy.

Your options include:

  • A heating pad works well, but you have to pay attention to the heat setting. Rather start low and gradually increase the temperature than start with a very high setting that could damage your skin.
  • A wet washcloth that's microwaved for 30 - 45 seconds. Don't put it in for too long otherwise, it could catch fire. Wring the cloth out properly before you put it in the microwave.
  • A cloth bag filled with rice is microwaved for a few minutes. Watch it carefully because too long and it could also catch fire.
  • A damp towel that has been in the dryer for a few minutes.
  • A hot water bottle.
  • A moist cloth and damp towel are effective pain relievers because evidence suggests that moisture transfers heat through the skin quickly and efficiently.

Hot water options include:

  • A hot bath is good because it covers the entire area and exposure is prolonged.
  • A hot or warm shower will suffice, but it's not nearly as effective as a bathtub.
  • A removable shower head can focus hot water on the area.
  • A large bucket of hot water, but it's not always practical.

Maximize Thermal Therapy with Immersion Tanks from RENU Therapy

RENU Therapy provides a range of hot soaks and ice bathtubs for sale, so you can get the most out of thermal therapy. Shop our range of tubs and tanks and contact us if you have any questions.

Our specialists provide the best advice to ensure you get the tub that suits your unique needs. Call us at 714-617-2007 at RENU Therapy or complete the contact form on our website and we'll get back to you.