It's a trope you've seen before: an older person complains that the cold causes a sore knee, or their back aches when it rains. It's been a stock joke for decades, but is there truth to it? Does cold weather affect your joints? Studies have been mixed, but have tended to show that patients with rheumatic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis do experience more joint pain in colder months.
Theories about Cold Weather Joint Pain
Why do people with arthritis insist that their joints ache more in damp or cold weather? Numerous studies have come to no definitive conclusion, but medical experts have proposed some theories:
- Perception: The idea that cold weather causes joint pain is so ingrained that we create a pattern when it happens.
- Barometric Pressure: Changes in pressure during colder weather may thicken fluid in joints and cause muscles, tendons, and scar tissue to contract, making them tighter and stiffer.
- Nerves: When cartilage is worn away, nerves in the exposed bones may feel coldness and changes in barometric pressure more acutely.
- Lack of Activity: People naturally move less during cold weather, and stiffness can set in with inactivity.
Caring for Your Joints in the Winter
Whether or not there's an identifiable reason you feel stiffer in the winter, there are plenty of steps to take to combat joint pain and increase your comfort:
Stay Active: Inactive joints become stiff joints. Find ways to get exercise in the winter. If the cold and snow make it too difficult indoors options might include gyms, fitness classes, home exercise equipment, indoor tracks, or even simple range-of-motion exercises that can be done at home.
Limber Up: If you're moving outdoors, any time spent standing still might lead to stiff joints. Make sure to warm up for at least 5 minutes with light stretches or walking before any strenuous physical activity, including chores like snow shoveling. Keep moving during breaks, and do a proper cool-down after physical activity.
Keep Warm: Wear proper winter clothing. Utilize heat therapy options like heating pads, heating packs, or even just a warm shower or bath. Consider thermal compression gloves to warm your extremities and reduce swelling from arthritis.
Get Your Vitamin D: Your biggest resource for Vitamin D is sunlight, which may be lacking in winter, especially as lower levels of the vitamin are associated with rheumatic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Get 600 IU of Vitamin D a day (or 800 IU for those over 70) from fatty fish like tuna, swordfish, and mackerel, or fortified products like milk, breakfast cereal, and orange juice.
Get Your Flu Shot: Those with autoimmune forms of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis are more susceptible to the flu and other infections. These diseases can compromise your immune system, and some medications that control them can further weaken it.
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