Gout occurs when too much uric acid builds up in the blood, either because the body produces too much or can't eliminate it efficiently. The excessive uric acid then forms crystals that embed themselves in joints and cause intense pain. When gout pain hits, the surest way to treat it is through medication but applying moist heat to the area is a quick way to reduce the pain.
A gout attack is usually marked by sharp pain that can become excruciating within a day. The painful area will feel warm to the touch and will look red and swollen. It will also be very tender. About 90 percent of the attacks are in the joints of the big toes, but other joints, such as the ankle, knee, wrist and fingers, can also experience gout. Attacks last anywhere from three to 10 days with irregular periods between attacks. Over time, the attacks can occur more often and with greater intensity.
Moist heat—warm baths or hot wash cloths—applied to the joint dilate the blood vessels in the area and improve the circulation to speed pain relief. It is also believed that the heat helps make the uric acid crystals more soluble, which can help the body dissolve them and remove them faster. Heat also soothes the pain and reduces stiffness.
You can use moist heat to treat gout in a number of different ways. Drug stores sell heat patches or heat packs that can be activated and placed on the joint. You could slip into a heated swimming pool, hot tub, warm bath or shower or warm whirlpool. Use water that you can comfortably tolerate without burning yourself. Do not use hot baths or hot tubs if you are pregnant, have diabetes, high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.
Moist heat will take at least 15 minutes to take effect. Use it twice a day on areas that continue to be painful. The goal is to warm the deep tissues enough to relax the muscles and dilate the blood vessels. The longer and hotter you can stand the therapy, the more heat will penetrate the affected area.
Heat and cold can be used together to reduce inflammation and pain. Cold therapy numbs nerves around the affected joint, which reduces the pain. Cold is also a great anti-inflammatory. You can use cold packs or soak the joint in cold water. Try to keep the cold on the joint for at least 15 minutes at a time.
Heat therapy works best with chronic gout. The pain of chronic gout attacks is less severe than the pain of an acute attack. Heat therapy may not provide substantial relief for an acute attack, although it can be helpful in conjuction with other treatments.