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Beat the Freeze: Coping With Joint Pain in Winter

As the winter chill sets in, you might find yourself hosting an unwelcome guest — joint pain. Joint aches and pains happen for many people all year round. Still, it can be especially troublesome in wintertime, particularly for those with arthritis, fibromyalgia and other health conditions.

Read on to understand why Jack Frost might be to blame for your aches and pains and what steps you can take to ease discomfort this time of year.

The connection between cold weather and joint pain

Many people report increased joint pain during damp, cold and humid temperatures, but why? According to Evan Werk, MD, a sports medicine physician with Banner – University Medicine, the answer is a bit complex. 

“This is a difficult question to study scientifically because there are so many variables at play, and much of the evidence is mixed as to whether or not weather influences pain,” Dr. Werk said. “While the exact cause is unclear, the fact remains that weather-related joint pain is still very real for some people, especially those with osteoarthritis.”

Bariatric pressure

Some research suggests that certain atmospheric conditions, such as barometric pressure changes, can cause increased joint pain. Barometric pressure is the weight of the air in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“When the pressure drops, which is common in winter, it can cause joints, tendons and the muscles around them to expand or contract,” Dr. Werk said. “The knees, hips, hands and back seem to be the most common places to experience this pain.”

Temperature and humidity

Changes in humidity and temperature might cause similar effects, making it more difficult to move and flex your joints. Lower temperatures and humidity levels can change the thickness of the fluid that fills your joints and helps them move smoothly.

Physical inactivity

Another theory suggests that being less active in winter can cause other joints and muscles to feel more stiff and painful.

Ways to prevent and improve joint pain this winter

If you are feeling joint pain when you feel a chill in the air, Dr. Werk shared some tips to find some relief:

Keep moving

“The most important advice I can give is just to keep moving,” Dr. Werk said. “Whether it’s walking, jogging or using a stationary bike or an elliptical, there is evidence that low-impact, weight-bearing activities keep the cartilage of our joints healthy and can improve function and lessen pain.”

Regular physical exercise and strengthening of the muscles around your joints can also provide them with improved support and help with pain and stiffness.

No matter the season, remember to warm up beforehand. Warming up helps increase your heart rate, circulation and body temperature, preparing your muscles and joints for physical activity.

For more tips about working out in winter, check out: “6 Exercise Tips to Keep You Moving in Cold Weather.”

Dress in layers

Wear plenty of layers to keep yourself warm when going out in the cold. Wear gloves, thick socks and a head covering to keep your hands, feet and head warm. This is especially important for those vulnerable to colder weather, such as people with rheumatoid arthritis or Raynaud’s disease.

Apply heat

With simple precautions, you can safely use a heating pad or electric blanket to keep joints warm. An extra sweater, pair of warm socks and/or gloves may also help keep pain at bay.

“If you find a warm shower and keeping the house warmer helps, go for it,” Dr. Werk said. “There is little harm in trying these measures, but I wouldn’t recommend increasing your electric bill too much.”

Drink plenty of water

Hydration is important, even in winter. Just because you aren’t hot and sweaty doesn’t mean you aren’t losing fluids. 

Dehydration can increase aches and pains, reduce joint fluid and cause muscle cramping. Be sure to drink plenty of water or add some soothing warm soup or flavored teas.

Use a pain reliever

Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) might be helpful as long as you don’t have another medical condition that restricts their use. 

“Other prescription strength anti-inflammatories, including topical anti-inflammatories, might be helpful – ask your provider,” Dr. Werk said.

For more help with joint pain, check out these nine tips for safe pain management.

Talk to your health care provider

If you’ve tried every tip and trick but are still experiencing pain, talk to your provider and make sure it’s not something more serious.

“Joint pain can be a sign of an underlying condition such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, though not always,” Dr. Werk said. “It’s important to remember that pain is our body’s warning system, so we can’t discredit it. If you are experiencing swelling or redness at the joint, plan a visit with your provider."

Takeaway

Freezing temps are a fact of life for many each winter, but don’t let them freeze your winter vibes. Take steps to reduce pain and stiffness from the cold to keep you moving through the season.

If you’re concerned about winter joint pain, speak to your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist.

For more joint-related articles, check out:

Sports Medicine Orthopedics