Contrast baths for arthritis pain

contrast bathsArthritis is a pain

I have osteoarthritis. I also have carpal tunnel and some other overuse injuries that are a result of using my hands a lot over the years.

Arthritis runs in my family, but some level of arthritis is just a natural part of aging.

(I don’t mean rheumatoid arthritis, which is a different animal. It’s an autoimmune disease that affects the whole body and can strike at an early age.)

I can live with my hand and foot pain during the day when I’m active and not thinking about it much. But at night when I’m trying to sleep, the pain and stiffness really bother me.

Arthritic joints (and there are lots of these in our hands and feet) tend to stiffen up when they aren’t being used. That’s why it often hurts to get out of a chair, or up off the floor, or out of bed in the morning.

One of the best ways to prevent disability from arthritis, in general, is to keep moving.

When I wake up in the middle of the night and try to move my hands or feet—ouch! It’s painful enough that it can keep me awake for the rest of the night.

Hot/cold therapy for arthritis pain

I recently discovered the simple, at-home treatment of contrast baths. It’s not a new treatment; contrast baths were being used in the 30s and probably well before that.

Moist heat and ice compresses have both been shown in studies to reduce the stiffness, inflammation, and pain associated with arthritis.

Contrast baths simply combine the two therapies.

All you need are two basins (big enough to fit your feet) and a large towel.

  • Fill one basin with very warm water, about as warm as you can tolerate comfortably. I use hot tap water. 
  • Fill the other basin with cold water. I use cold tap water and then add about 6 ice cubes.
  • Place the basins side by side on top of the towel. 
  • Place your hands or feet in the warm water first. Soak for about 3-4 minutes. 
  • Switch your hands to the cold water and soak for 1 minute.
  • Repeat these steps 4 times, ending with a warm soak.

Additional tips:

  • Do hands first and then feet, for no reason other than feet just seem dirtier than hands!
  • Remove rings.
  • Add a teaspoon of olive oil or some other oil to the hot water bath to keep your skin soft. Tea tree oil, especially, is great for a foot soak.
  • Keep a kettle of hot water nearby and add a little to the warm water basin between soaks. Be sure to check the temperature, though, before returning your hands to the bath!
  • Do some simple range of motion (ROM) exercises—see below—while your hands/feet are soaking in the warm water.
  • Don’t use contrast baths without medical supervision if you have numbness due to diabetes or another condition. You risk scalding if you can’t feel the temperature of the water.

Warm water opens up capillaries and increases blood flow; cold water does the opposite. The theory behind contrast baths is that the back-and-forth of heat and cold creates a pumping action that decreases swelling and inflammation around the arthritic joints.

To be honest, the effectiveness of contrast baths has not really been studied. However, it’s a pretty widely recommended therapy not only for arthritis, but other joint and muscle injuries, as well.

It’s also no-cost and has no side effects, so I thought why not give it a try? If nothing else, on their own the warm soak relieves stiffness and the cold soak decreases inflammation.

And they feel surprisingly soothing when done together!

Range of motion exercises for arthritis pain

Keeping my hands working well is very important to me. I must admit I took my hands for granted until I started having arthritis symptoms in the last year or so. Now I understand how many day-to-day activities require strong and flexible fingers!

My goal is to keep them that way.

I posted a few weeks ago about using turmeric supplements to help with the pain. Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is the most frequently recommended over-the-counter medication for mild to moderate arthritis pain, but I don’t like taking it every day.

So I’ve had to find other treatments that I can do every day.

The turmeric has helped a little, and I think the contrast baths are, too. I do the soaks in the evening before bed, and my nighttime pain and stiffness seem less bothersome.

Others might prefer doing the treatment in the morning, when the stiffness is worse.

Either way, as I mentioned above it’s a good idea to do some simple ROM exercises while your hands or feet are soaking in the warm water.

I also do these ROM exercises, at least with my fingers, several times over the course of a day. Especially first thing in the morning, or after I’ve been typing or playing the violin for an extended period of time.

I like the 6 ROM exercises demonstrated by my favorite YouTube physical therapists, Brad and Bob.

For your feet, just curl your toes in and out, and then spread your toes as wide as you can.

Bottom line: Contrast baths are an inexpensive and simple treatment for arthritis of the hands and feet. They can be done periodically as needed or several times a day. Along with range of movement exercises, contrast baths can keep your hands and feet flexible and reduce the need for over-the-counter medications.


Frugal Nurse


About Frugal Nurse

I'm frugal in all aspects of my life, not just healthcare. But I'm thankful that my 30+ years of experience as a nurse in our crazy-expensive healthcare system has given me the tools I need to make the most cost-effective healthcare choices I can for my family,

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