When you live with arthritis, learning how to soothe tender joints is part of everyday life. One common way to do this is by icing your affected joint, which can feel particularly soothing during the hot months of summer.
However, if you don’t have cold packs on hand, there are several household items that can double as an inexpensive ice treatment. Certain DIY ice packs may even work better than some store-bought varieties due to their flexibility, size, or duration of coolness.
Cold treatment can reduce swelling and help temporarily numb painful arthritic joints, per the Cleveland Clinic. You can use ice after exercising — an important part of treating arthritis — to help ease muscle achiness.
A general recommendation is to ice an area for 20 minutes at a time, but it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting an ice treatment to find out if it’s appropriate for you and how long you should apply cold treatment.
“Pay attention to how it feels when you ice a joint, especially if it’s the first time you’re doing so,” says occupational therapist Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York. “Rate your pain levels before and after to track how ice is affecting your joints. Talk to your doctor about the results so you can make modifications if needed.”
You should always have a barrier between an ice pack and your skin, even if your ice pack is homemade. Whether a towel, a pillowcase, or paper towel, this will help protect your skin from irritation — particularly if you have decreased sensation due to diabetes or another condition that causes neuropathy (numbness from nerve damage that typically occurs in the hands and feet).
These 10 household items will help you make inexpensive ice packs on the fly at home, and as a result, your joints may feel better afterward.
Soak a sponge in water, then freeze it in a plastic bag. This will provide both structured and flexible icing options for you as it warms up on your joint.
“It probably would thaw out relatively quickly, but a frozen sponge works for short-term icing,” says Dorsey. “As it thaws, it’ll become more moldable, so you can get it to conform around a small area like a finger or toe.”
This is also a great way to create a number of ice packs at once. If you have a pack of four sponges on hand, freeze them all and you’ll always have a cooling fix ready for aching joints.
Soak a washcloth in water, then place it in a resealable plastic bag and freeze. This is a comfortable and reusable way to ice joints, and you can even customize the washcloth before putting it in the freezer.
“You can shape the washcloth however you want for your joint, whether you leave it flat or fold it into thirds or fourths to make it smaller,” says Dorsey. “The washcloths will be really stiff when they first come out, and they’ll get more flexible as they start to melt so you can drape it over any area you want.”
As with any other method of icing, there should always be a barrier between the ice and your skin. Keep the washcloth in the resealable plastic bag and wrap it in a dish towel, pillowcase, or another material.
Frozen Bag of Peas or Fruit Chunks
With this classic icing method, simply use a bag of frozen food like peas to cool your tender joints. Be sure to mark the bag clearly as being an ice pack — not food — since taking it in and out of the freezer can spoil the produce.
“The nice thing about bags of frozen food is they’re a little bigger, so they’re great if you need to ice a larger area, such as your neck, shoulder, knee, or other large joints,” says Dorsey. “But they’re probably too big if you’re just trying to ice your fingers.”
Bags of peas and corn are best if you want a moldable option. However, if you’re icing for longer periods of time, you may want to opt for frozen bags of larger produce like fruit chunks, which may retain coolness for longer. Be sure to speak to your doctor about the appropriate duration of time to ice a joint, especially if you have a decreased sense of touch.
Fill a sock with rice, tie the end, and freeze. This method is particularly versatile because rice socks can be used for icing and also as heat treatment when the sock is 100 percent cotton (simply heat it in the microwave for one to two minutes next to a glass of water). Here are more ways socks can be used as arthritis home remedies.
“Rice is great because it’ll stay malleable and can go around a wrist or another curved joint,” says Dorsey. “Since most of our body parts are not perfectly flat, it’s nice to be able to use an ice pack that conforms to your joint.”
Rubbing Alcohol or Dish Soap
Mix two cups of water with ½ cup rubbing alcohol and food coloring (optional). Pour into a resealable plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and add to another bag for safety. This video shows how to do this.
Because alcohol lowers the freezing temperature of the water, your ice pack will be gel-like and shape around the joint you’re icing.
“It should stay slushy, which helps to cover more of the joint surface at one time,” says Dorsey. “With arthritis, you’re focusing on the whole joint. A gel pack like this means you won’t need to ice just one part of it at a time.”
You can also pour inexpensive dish soap into a resealable plastic bag and freeze for the same moldable, squishy texture of a gel ice pack, suggests Lifehacker.
Simply freeze a plastic water bottle for about two hours (if it’s a larger bottle, you’ll need to wait a little longer). When you want to ice a part of your body that’s flatter and longer, a less malleable ice pack like this can come in handy.
“A frozen water bottle might be good for icing just the back of your hand, or areas like your forearms or shins,” says Dorsey.
Another benefit of using a frozen water bottle is that it will likely retain its coolness for longer than other icing methods, like frozen peas or sponges, that may thaw out quickly.
Fill a small water balloon with water and freeze until solid for a DIY ice pack.
“Stick to a small balloon, because a larger one may be too heavy when pressed against your wrist or other small joints,” says Dorsey. “Water balloons that are the size of a tennis ball or smaller could work for these areas.”
Bonus: After you’re done icing and they’re completely melted, you can give the water balloons to your kids or grandkids to play with in the summer heat.
If you have odd nickels and pennies in your junk drawer, collect them in a plastic bag and freeze it, suggests New Mexico Orthopaedics. This is an option if you don’t want to sacrifice a bag of frozen food for your ice pack or if you don’t have options for making a DIY gel pack available.
“The metals might not hold the cool for long, but it’s a good option for a quick icing,” says Dorsey. “It’s also helpful because coins can be reused endlessly, whereas bags of peas or corn have potential for spoilage when you use them as ice packs.”
Use your coin ice pack to ease pain in larger joints like your knees (the coins may be too heavy for smaller finger or wrist joints). The bag of coins will drape around your joint, giving you a conforming ice treatment.
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6 Best Ice Packs For Knee Replacement Surgery (Plus DIY Ice Pack). New Mexico Orthopaedics. July 2, 2020. https://www.nmortho.com/6-best-ice-packs-for-knee-replacement-surgery-plus-diy-ice-pack.
DIY Ice Pack 4 Ways. BuzzFeed Nifty. July 2, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ad6iZj4vk0&feature=youtu.be&t=58.
Interview with Julie Dorsey, OTD, OTR/L, occupational therapist and an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ithaca College in New York
Make a Homemade Gel Pack with Dish Soap and a Plastic Bag. Lifehacker. July 2, 2020.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEIWdEDFlQY.
What’s Better for Soothing Arthritis Pain? Ice or Heat? Cleveland Clinic. July 2, 2020. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/whats-better-for-soothing-arthritis-pain-ice-or-heat.