Applying a heat treatment or cold treatment is a common method for treating hand and finger injuries, stiffness, swelling, and pain. When used for fingers, hands, and wrists, these treatments can be very helpful for:
Heat or warmth will help get stiff or sore hands moving by increasing the blood flow and speeding up the molecules in tissues. Heat is helpful for some stiff joints and muscles, and it can be useful prior to an activity. We often see an athlete warming up before a workout, and your hand therapist may use heat to help loosen up your hands before your session.
A warm shower or bath can help some sore, stiff joints, especially in the early morning. A warm compress (moist heat) or heating pad (dry heat) can also relieve stiffness (Figure 1); however, too much heat could cause injury such as fainting, swelling, or burns to skin and tissues. A good guideline that is not absolute is that heat should not be used for more than 15 minutes at a time to prevent unwanted side effects. Heat should never be so hot that it is painful.
If pain, swelling, and irritation are present after an activity or surgery, a cold treatment can reduce these symptoms. Cold temperatures slow down the molecules in tissues and reduce blood flow.
The most common cold treatment is ice or something that has been made cold by placing it in the freezer, such as a gel pack (Figure 2) or ice therapy machine. Similarly, a general but not absolute rule is to apply ice for 15 minutes and then allow a 15-minute rest before reapplying.
As with heat, too much cold can slow down healing and stiffen sore joints, so use this treatment with moderation and typically only in the period just after injury. Applying ice or anything extremely cold to bare skin can cause a frostbite injury. Always wrap the source of cold in some sort of fabric. If a bandage or splint is too thick and the cold is not getting through, apply the cold near the area on exposed skin. Stop using ice if you feel extreme pain or numbness due to the cold. Talk to your surgeon about whether and for how long they recommend ice after hand surgery or injury.
Some special and more advanced heat or cold treatments may be used under the supervision of a therapist or physician. Some options include:
In summary, use caution when implementing a heat treatment or cold treatment after hand surgery. Monitor time and the condition of your skin. Always test the hot or cold item before applying so you avoid injury. Contact your physician or therapist for questions, guidance, and assistance.
© 2022American Society for Surgery of the Hand
This content is written, edited and updated by hand surgeon members of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.Find a hand surgeon near you.