Teach Me

Is Winter a Pain for Your Joints?

Do you find your knee starting to act up whenever it dips in temperature? When it’s about to rain, does your back start aching more than normal? It may seem like a far-fetched idea, but for those who already suffer from joint pain, especially those with arthritis, this isn’t just in their imagination.

What causes your joints to ache?

“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,” said Evan Werk, MD, sports medicine physician at Banner – University Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Clinic. “Anecdotally, many patients report an increase in joint pain during damp, cold, humid temperatures. The knees, hips, hands and back seem to be the most common.”

One theory suggests barometric pressure as an instigator. As the barometric pressure drops, tendons, muscles, and the surrounding tissue around joints will expand. Often, patients will say their muscles, ligaments and joints are stiffer or more painful during damp, cold weather.

Another theory suggests that since we are less active in the winter, this can cause our joints and muscles to feel stiffer and more painful.

How can you relieve cold-weather joint pain?

Whether or not these theories are valid, if you are feeling joint pain when the weather gets colder, Dr. Werk provided these tips to relieve the pain at home.

Keep moving

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

By staying active and strengthening the muscles around your joints, you’ll also provide them with improved support and can significantly help with pain and stiffness.

“Remember before doing any physical exercise you should warm up properly—such as moderate walking or light jogging,” Dr. Werk said. “You should always warm-up before you stretch to avoid injury.”

Dress appropriately

Keeping your joints warm is important. If you are planning on being outdoors and braving the elements, dress in layers. This is especially important for those who are vulnerable to colder weather, such as people who have rheumatoid arthritis or Raynaud’s disease.

Apply Heat

“If patients find warm showers and keeping the house warmer beneficial, I say 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.”

Dr. Werk also suggested using a heating pad or an electric blanket to keep joints warm. Why not grab yourself a cup of hot tea, coffee or cocoa, a good book, and take some time to relax?

Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

You can take medications such as acetaminophen or ask your doctor for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug to reduce aches and pains.

What happens if these tips don’t help?

If you’ve exhausted these tips but are still experiencing pain, talk to your doctor 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, this should be a prompt consultation with your doc."

Are you experiencing joint pain? Don’t wait. Schedule an appointment with an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist to be evaluated. To find a Banner Health expert near you, visit BannerHealth.com.

To learn more about your knee and hip health, take our free Joint Pain Test

Sports Medicine Orthopedics