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Arthritis symptoms can be painful. While there is no cure for arthritis, there are ways to reduce symptoms. One common treatment for arthritis is cryotherapy, which is a term for cold therapy. This usually takes the form of ice. Thermotherapy — the term for heat therapy — is also commonly used.

This roundup focuses on ice packs but also considers versatile options that you can use for cold or heat therapy.

  • Firsthand experience. Since I have a chronic illness that causes joint pain, my personal experience with managing joint pain with cold therapy informed some of my product picks.
  • Medically accepted care. I considered clinical research and recommendations from medical professionals and authorities like the Arthritis Foundation.
  • Design and functionality. I sought products that are easy to use, especially for those with limited mobility due to arthritis. This means features like adjustable straps and washable covers, and products that are designed for use and fit on a variety of joints.
  • Cost. Products cover a range of price points to provide options for different personal budgets.
  • Online reviews. Using the Chrome Extension Fakespot, I filtered out doctored and suspicious reviews. I only included products with an average review of at least 4 out of 5 stars.
  • Materials. I looked for products that are easy to clean and made of soft, comfortable materials. Though this article focuses on ice packs, I included several products that can also be used for heat therapy.

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $15
  • $$ = $15–$25
  • $$$ = over $25
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Best for all-day use

CryoMAX 8 Hour Cold Therapy Pack

  • Price: $
  • Pros: flexible, stays cold up to 8 hours
  • Cons: cold-only; no heat option

At 12” by 6”, this medium-size CryoMAX cold pack is recommended for your elbows, face, feet, or hands (but you can use it anywhere it fits). The up-to-8-hour cold time makes this pack ideal for pain relief on-the-go. Secure it to your body with the adjustable strap when you need long-lasting relief.

Remember to only apply ice a few minutes at a time (no more than 15 minutes) a few times a day, or as directed by a healthcare professional who knows your condition.

Best for shoulders

REVIX Shoulder Ice Pack

  • Price: $$$
  • Pros: covers entire shoulder & upper arm
  • Cons: only fits one part of the body

When your shoulder hurts, it can be difficult to get an ice pack on the exact place(s) it hurts. This unique ice pack solves that problem by conforming to your entire shoulder. Once you secure it with the arm and side straps, it can provide your entire shoulder and upper arm with chilly relief.

The plush cover is designed to be gentle on the skin and eliminate the need for a barrier towel. This may be a good choice if you’re recovering from shoulder surgery or other painful shoulder injuries.

Best for wrists or hands

Arctic Flex Wrist Ice Pack

  • Price: $
  • Pros: leaves fingers free while icing wrist; adjustable compression
  • Cons: can’t be used anywhere except wrists

The Arctic Flex Wrist Ice Pack performs double duty: It’s both a compression brace and an ice pack. Though it looks like a regular wrist brace, it contains a gel pack that wraps around the entire wrist. Adjust the brace’s tightness for varying levels of compression.

The gel pack can be heated in the microwave or frozen, and leaves your hand and fingers free. The latex-free wrist wrap fits wrists up to 9” in circumference, is machine-washable, and is reversible (so you can use it on either hand).

Best for the back and large areas

FlexiKold Oversize Gel Cold Pack

  • Price: $$$
  • Pros: flexible material; extra-large 13” x 21.5” size
  • Cons: cold only; no heat option

Most ice packs are designed for smaller joints, so they tend to be small. This oversized FlexiKold cold pack is designed to cover your entire back. You can also drape it over legs, knees, or hips to help with widespread relief. Freeze for 1 to 2 hours before use for extra cooling comfort.

Best for lower back

MagicGel Pain Relief Pack

  • Price: $$
  • Pros: snug, adjustable fit around lower back
  • Cons: not designed for arms or legs

This gel pack straps around your hips and hugs your lower back. This may be an option if you’re healing from surgery or injury to the tailbone or lower back. You can also use it on your abdomen or hips.

It will also work as a heating pack, though it only lasts about 18 minutes. The gel is flexible, even while cold, so it is designed to conform perfectly to your body.

Best for knee pain

HurtSkurt Stretch-to-Fit Hot/Cold Pack

  • Price: $$$
  • Pros: snug fit without straps; fun patterns; doesn’t restrict movement
  • Cons: gel packs initially very solid after freezing, which can be a bit uncomfortable

Full disclosure: The HurtSkurt was sent to me for review by the company. It is a pretty nifty cold pack. Available in black or six colorful designs, it has twelve 2” x 4” gel packs sewn into a stretchy sleeve. I found the sleeve comfortable and flexible enough that I am currently typing this with the medium-sized HurtSkurt on my right elbow.

Freezing makes the gel packs solid, which is a little uncomfortable at first, but they soften pretty quickly. Put in the fridge for less intense cold and more flexible gel packs, or pop in the microwave for 20 to 45 seconds for heat. The small HurtSkurt is ideal for wrists and ankles, while the medium and large are meant for knees and elbows.

Best ice pack for kids

Up & Up Hot+Cold Gel Bead Compress

  • Price: $
  • Pros: cute penguin design; latex-free
  • Cons: small

This adorable compress is made especially for little ones and their “owies.” It can be used as a hot or cold compress, and the temperature lasts up to 20 minutes. This compress can help kids’ skin and nerves, and prevents ice or heat burns from accidental overuse.

Freeze for 2 hours for cold, or pop in the microwave for 10 to 13 seconds for hot. This compress is shaped like a penguin, making it fun and nonthreatening for little kids who don’t feel well.

Can you leave an ice pack on too long?

Yes! Never leave an ice pack on your skin for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Icing for too long can lead to frostbite, an incredibly painful ice burn. Never fall asleep with ice on your skin. Always set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes so you don’t accidentally leave ice on for too long.

How frequently should I use ice for arthritis?

You can use ice one to three times a day, for no more than 15 to 20 minutes each time. Wait at least 10 minutes before reapplying an ice pack.

How should I store an ice pack while I’m not using it?

Store your ice pack in the freezer so it will stay cold for when you need it next.

There is no definitive answer to whether heat or cold is better, as both have their place in treating symptoms of arthritis and joint pain in general.

The Arthritis Foundation recommends using heat in the form of warm compress or bath for stiff joints and achy muscles. Warmth opens blood vessels, allowing more blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to get to the damaged joint tissue. They recommend cold therapy for swelling and redness, as cold decreases blood flow and inflammation.

A 2003 experimental study involving 179 patients in three controlled trials found that 20 minutes of ice massage, 5 days a week for 3 weeks, increased quadriceps strength by 29 percent in participants with knee osteoarthritis (OA). The study also found a slight improvement in knee flexion range of motion and functional status. One of the trials also showed that cold packs can decrease knee edema (a buildup of fluids causing swelling).

A 2014 experimental study of 18 females ages 50 to 69 observed improvements in clinical symptoms and walking ability after 12 weeks of treatment using heat- and steam-generating sheets. However, a 2018 randomized controlled trial of 93 rheumatoid arthritis patients concluded that dry heat treatment did not improve hand function or provide any positive benefits.

So should you use heat or cold? That depends on the symptoms you are experiencing. Experiment with both when your symptoms flare and find what works best for you. You can always switch between hot and cold. You do not have to choose only one or the other.

Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer day, she’s hiking with her corgi, Vincent. Learn more about her on her website.