If you have arthritis you may already be noticing an increase in pain and stiffness as the weather turns colder.
Research into links between weather and pain
But, while such a worsening of symptoms is a reality for many people during the winter months, the scientific reasons for this are not well understood. Researchers from Manchester University found that humidity, air pressure and wind speed has an impact on the pain levels of people living with chronic pain.
They concluded that humidity has the biggest impact but when all three (humidity, air pressure and wind) were combined it could increase the likelihood of pain symptoms by as much as 20%.
How cold affect joints
Although scientists have been unable to establish a causal link between cold weather and a worsening of chronic pain, there are different theories as to what might be happening.
- Pain receptors: Our bodies contain pain receptors and some experts believe they become more sensitive during the cold weather so we feel the pain of arthritis more keenly.
- Pressure inside the joint: Others suggest that when the temperature falls and the atmospheric pressure drops this has an impact on the pressure inside the joints which may push on the nerves causing pain.
- Expansion in soft tissues: A fall in barometric pressure may cause the tissues inside the body to expand, leading to an increase in joint pain. If your joints are already inflamed or scarred due to arthritis or injury, the nerves inside the joint are already likely to be sensitive and this is exacerbated by changes in temperature.
- Reduction in movement: A common belief is that the colder weather tends to make us less active and more sedentary and this leads to a stiffening up of our joints and more pain. The synovial fluid which cushions the joints may become more viscous (thicker) in cold weather. This limits its effectiveness as a shock absorber and can cause your joints to feel stiff and achy.
- Psychological impacts: Colder weather and less daylight may also have an impact on mood and people may be more susceptible to stress as they struggle to keep warm or worry about heating bills. These psychological factors may also contribute to higher pain levels.
- Increased risk of injury: The chances of getting injured are also higher during winter weather. Aside from the risk of trips and falls, low temperatures cause the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments and tendons) to become less elastic and more prone to tears, sprains and ruptures. Fears about getting injured may make people less willing to go outside which can contribute further to low mood and increased joint stiffness.
How to keep mobile in winter
If you have arthritis it is important to keep active throughout the year as exercise helps to keep your joints flexible and mobile, helping to prevent stiffness and pain.
- Stay active: It’s a good idea to choose an activity that you enjoy and that won’t put too much pressure on your joints. Walking or cycling is ideal or you may prefer an indoor activity such as yoga, pilates or tai chi. Stretching is ideal for keeping joints supple and for strengthening muscles and improving posture. Swimming is another great form of exercise for people with arthritis as the water supports the body weight so you can move without putting pressure on your joints.
- Physiotherapy: Physiotherapy can be very beneficial as you will receive specialist advice and exercises that can help you to build muscle strength and flexibility. A range of treatments are available to help manage the pain of arthritis including platelet rich plasma injections to support natural healing.
- Keep warm: As well as exercising to keep your joints flexible there are some practical steps you can take to manage the pain of arthritis in winter weather, including wearing layers of warm clothing that trap the heat against your body, keeping your home at a temperature of 18 degrees or above and using hot water bottles or electric blankets to ease stiff, painful joints.
- Lifestyle changes: Lifestyle factors like losing weight or quitting smoking can also help you to manage arthritic pain more effectively.
 Cloudy with a Chance of Pain, published in npj Digital Medicine 24 October 2019
Orthopaedic consultant and surgeon | Dublin
Joseph Queally specialises in the treatment of knee, hip and ankle conditions, including all types of arthritis. If you are experiencing joint pain, contact us for a diagnosis and advice about non-surgical methods of pain relief as well as a full range of surgical options.
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