Arthritis and cold weather

By Amber Greviskes

The Rumor: Winter workouts can lead to sore muscles and injuries

Each year, after my first outdoor workout after the temperature drops, my legs are achy the following day. I’m not particularly out of shape. In fact, I exercise daily and these pains can’t be attributed to pushing myself too hard or trying new exercises. Instead, each November, like clockwork, the muscles in my legs tighten, strain and remain that way for several days. Many people I meet at the gym share similar stories. None of us has arthritis or other conditions that should trigger this pain, and we often wonder what’s wrong.

The Verdict: Cold weather can cause tighter muscles and joints

Cold weather causes muscles to lose more heat and contract, causing tightness throughout the body. Joints get tighter, muscles can lose their range of motion and nerves can more easily be pinched, according to Los Angeles-based orthopedic physical therapist Vivian Eisenstadt.

Thanks to the effects of colder temps, muscles are forced to work much harder to complete the same tasks they complete easily in milder weather. This causes more damage to the muscle tissue and can result in increased soreness. To counteract the damage, be sure to warm up for a little longer than usual.

“It is normal to feel muscle soreness for a few days after exercise, especially if it is a different type of activity or at a more intense level than your body is used to,” says Amy McDowell, a physical therapist and Pilates instructor from ARC Physical Therapy, in Chicago. “If you feel more sore in the winter after the same level of exercise than you do the rest of the year, it could be that your body needs a longer warm-up period.”

Try beginning your workout with light cardio exercises, like brisk walking. This will raise your core temperature and ensure that oxygen and blood are flowing throughout your body. A basic rule of thumb is that you should warm up for 10 minutes when the temperature is between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. For each 10-degree temperature drop below 35, extend your warm-up by five minutes.

Why Does Cold Weather Affect Joint Pain?

Perhaps you have experienced the flare-up of a nagging joint pain triggered by the onset of winter. For some people the sensation is so finely tuned that they seem to be able to predict weather changes based on the condition of their joints. While there is no clear scientific explanation as to why this is so, most people living with chronic joint disorders, such as arthritis, will agree that there is a link between joint pain and cold weather.

The following are a few possible reasons why cold weather affects joint pain:

  • Barometric pressure changes:It is the weight of the atmosphere that is present all around us. Barometric pressures will often fall before cold weather sets in. This causes expansion of tissues and pain in your joints.
  • Increased sensitivity of nerves in the joint: In case of injury, the nerves in the joint may become hypersensitive to changes in cold weather due to scarring, inflammation, or adhesions.
  • Increasing thickness of joint fluid: In cold weather the synovial fluid which acts as a shock absorber within the joint may become more viscous and not flow freely resulting in stiff and creaking joints.
  • A combination of cold & humidity: High levels of humidity and cold weather may be harmful to bone and cartilage cells.
  • Inactivity: People tend to move less in freezing weather and long periods of inactivity are detrimental to joint health.

If the cold weather has been worsening your joint pain, the following 5 suggestions may be helpful:

  • Pain medications: Consult with your doctor before taking pain medication and strictly follow the instructions given by your doctor regarding the type, dosage, and frequency of use.
  • Stay warm: Using electric blankets, keeping your home heated, putting on warm clothing, and thoroughly warming up the car before use are a few things you can do to reduce joint pain.
  • Prevent swelling: To keep your joints from swelling, use well-fitting gloves that will keep joint fluid out. Knee bands or braces can be used reduce swelling and improve stability in the knee.
  • Stay active: Doing a few stretches and calisthenics will keep your joints limber and strong. As long as you don’t overdo it, staying active will reduce joint pain.
  • Keep your spirits up: The cold, dark, and damp weather may have a psychologic effect of reducing your tolerance to pain. Keep your mind engaged with things you enjoy, figure out how to get enough sleep and adequate nutrition. Learning how to improve your mood plays a big role when managing chronic joint pain.

Dr. Domb is a nationally recognized orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and arthroscopic surgery of the hip, shoulder and knee. A noted pioneer in advanced new techniques in hip arthroscopy, he delivers innovative treatments for patients with hip injuries such as impingement and labral tears. Dr. Domb is also an expert in arthroscopic surgery of the shoulder and knee, adept in specialized techniques including arthroscopic rotator cuff repair and all-inside ACL reconstruction.

The winter chill is often associated with an increase in aches and pains for many older people, particularly in the joints, but also in the muscles. Some recent studies have shown an increase in general aches and pain in older men and women, and in particular a correlation between joint pain and weather conditions in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.

For those without these conditions, any experience of pain with cold or wet weather may be related to changes in physical activity and diet.

How does the cold affect our muscles and joints?

In investigating a link between weather and joint pain, studies have examined temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, humidity and sunshine for their links to pain. The results are somewhat inconclusive because they vary greatly. This is largely because pain is subjective and it’s difficult to isolate a particular cause.

Other factors like exercise, mood and diet also have an influence on pain perception. Some research focused on the idea that atmospheric pressure may have the greatest effect. This is because there are gasses and fluids within joints, and if atmospheric pressure reduces, these gasses and fluids might expand, putting pressure on surrounding nerves causing pain. But this has not been shown clearly.

A recent study found the combination of temperature, sunlight exposure and humidity correlates with joint pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. But the authors were quick to point out the variability in pain perception and other factors, like exercise and diet, means a clear link still can’t be drawn with confidence.

Read more: Health Check: why do my muscles ache the day after exercise?

How we can prevent aches in winter

There are some things that can help reduce pain during the colder months.

Exercise: joint pain is often associated with excess weight, so a weight-loss exercise program will help to take the pressure off the joints. Exercise also helps to improve metabolism and blood flow through muscles and joints, which can reduce inflammation, stiffness and pain.

Many people tend to be more active in the warmer months when the weather is pleasant and it’s comfortable to be outside. It’s important to continue exercise into winter as a reduction in physical activity in winter for more than two weeks results in loss of muscle strength and mass as well as reduced bone density. Being inactive for long periods can lead to a gain in fat mass and overall body weight which puts excess pressure on joints that can lead to injury.

There’s a link between joint pain and weather for patients with arthritis. from

Movements that include large muscles of the legs, arms and torso such as squats, sit-ups and push-ups can be done in a fairly small space, and so are ideal inside during winter. Resistance exercise of this type is important for muscle and bone strength. Like muscles, bones adapt to the stimulus of repeated load bearing making them stronger and less prone to injury. This is particularly important for older individuals.

This doesn’t mean you need to go to a gym and lift heavy weights, although you may consider joining a gym for individual or group exercise sessions. You can get enough stimulation for maintenance of muscle and bone strength through daily tasks and home workouts.

Vitamin D: exercising regularly can help to reduce symptoms in the long term, and getting outdoors for longer periods more often provides vitamin D for healthier bones and joints.

When daylight hours are limited, vitamin D supplements are a good way to continue to get the benefits of this vitamin, which has an important role in bone mineralisation, muscle function and nerve growth. Studies have found daily supplementation with vitamin D reduces the risk of bone fracture and improves muscle strength for older people.

Read more: Both men and women need strong bones, but their skeletons grow differently across ages

It’s recommended adults get at least 200 to 600 international units (IU) of Vitamin D daily if they’re getting some exposure to sunlight most days. It’s not easy to get vitamin D through diet, but in a country like Australia, where sunlight is available even in winter, this presents less of a problem than for people living in regions that have limited sunlight in winter.

The best foods for vitamin D include fatty fish like sardines, mackerel and herring, milk, margarine and vitamin D-fortified soy drinks. But it’s important to remember dietary sources alone are not sufficient to provide enough vitamin D. Sunlight is an important source and supplementation should be considered for those who have limited exposure to the sun in winter.

Glucosamine and chondroitin: glucosamine and chondroitin sulphate help to provide nourishment to cartilage to improve joint function. They make movement of the joint smoother by reducing the friction produced between the articulating surfaces of the bones. Crustaceans provide a good source of glucosamine, while chondroitin sulphate can be obtained from cartilage of animal bones. Supplementation of these is prescribed for patients with osteoarthritis to help restore cartilage.

Heat therapy: heat therapy can help greatly when you do have pain. Warm baths or showers, particularly in the morning can make a big difference to the level of pain and stiffness. Warming the body increases elasticity of the tissue and improves blood flow making movement easier. It also activates neural pathways that reduce the brain’s perception of pain.

Weather and Arthritis

Does your joint pain tend to increase when the weather turns cold or stormy? You’re not alone. Many people with arthritis claim there’s a connection between the weather and arthritis: They believe they know when the weather is going to change because the pain or stiffness level in their joints worsens. Ask just about any rheumatologist, and they’ll tell you they hear weather-related complaints from many of their patients.

What’s the Research Behind Weather and Arthritis?

Though researchers are not sure exactly why arthritis pain might increase with weather changes, they suspect that certain conditions in the atmosphere, such as a drop in barometric pressure, can increase swelling in the joint capsule leading to pain.

Barometric pressure refers to the weight of the air around us. In good weather, barometric pressure is high. This pressure pushes against the body from the outside, helping to keep tissues – including the tissues that surround our joints – from expanding. In “bad” or stormy weather, barometric pressure drops so that there is less pressure to push against the body. This allows tissues around the joints to expand, putting pressure on the joints and increasing pain.

What the Studies Show

The research on weather’s impact on arthritis is conflicting. One study from Tufts University showed that with every 10 degree drop in temperature, arthritis pain increased in the study participants. It also showed that low barometric pressure, low temperatures and rain can increase pain. Studies in cadavers have showed that barometric pressure can affect pressure in the joints. In one cadaver study, low atmospheric pressure threw the ball of the hip joint off track by more than one-third.

However, other studies have shown that regardless of where people live, their bodies seem to establish a new equilibrium to the climate they live in. One study that looked at chronic pain sufferers in warm and cold areas – San Diego, Nashville, Boston, and Worcester, a Massachusetts city with much colder temperatures than Boston – found that two-thirds believed the weather worsened their pain. However, the perceived effect of weather on pain was not found to be related to the regional climate. Thus, this study did not support the theory that pain is worsened by living in a colder climate. In other words, relocating from, say, Buffalo to Miami will probably not make much difference in the long-term. And there are other studies in which people say there is no difference in their pain due to weather changes.

Tips on Managing Weather-Related Joint Pain

Regardless of what the studies show, your pain is unique to you. If you notice an increase in joint pain or stiffness during certain weather patterns, there are things you can do to find some relief. Your doctor may increase the dosage of your pain medication, but you can also try one of the following:

  • Warm up – Applying hot compresses or heating pads to the affected joints can relax muscles and ease joint pain. Keep your entire body warm by dressing in layers, warm up the car on cold days before getting in or try using an electric blanket at night.
  • Reduce swelling – If you notice joint swelling, try compression products on the painful areas, such as a compression knee sleeve or spandex gloves.
  • Move it! – Exercise can help ease joint pain, particularly if you exercise before you go outside. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about specific exercises that can help you manage joint pain and stiffness during weather changes.
  • De-stress and improve mood – Depression and anxiety are common in people with arthritis, so it’s crucial to find ways to improve your mood and manage stress. These can include everything from support groups or psychotherapy to exercise and meditation.
  • Get Your Zzzs – Lack of sleep can worsen arthritis pain and your mood, regardless of the weather. If you’re already feeling an increase in pain from the weather, short changing your sleep will make matters even worse.
  • Remember that weather cannot actually worsen arthritis – You may feel more pain when it’s cold or stormy out, but these weather conditions cannot cause joint damage or make your disease worse. Further, there is no evidence that living in a particular climate can prevent or cause arthritis.
  • It’s Only Temporary – Studies show that people do adjust to their environment. If you move to a place that has a lot of rain, for example, your body will slowly adjust to the barometric pressure. It does this by moving fluid from the joint into the body’s circulation. It also helps to remember that storms do pass.

Everyone with arthritis is different. Some people are not affected by the weather at all while some experience a significant increase in pain. Unfortunately science doesn’t yet have a lot of answers and it’s impossible to predict what type of weather changes will affect which people. If you’ve noticed that your symptoms worsen in specific types of weather, talk to your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.

Feeling Under the Weather? Barometric pressure and joint pain

You may have heard a grandparent claim they could predict the weather based on joint pain. This is not something that was in their imagination. According to the Arthritis Foundation (2015), weather can impact our health. In particular, a 10 point drop in temperature, and an increase in barometric pressure can cause arthritic pain. Barometric pressure is a measure that refers to the weight of the surrounding air. The Arthritis Foundation reports that in a study done by Tuft’s University, the ball of a cadavers hip joint moved off track around one third of an inch with a drop in barametric pressure. If a person has arthritis in multiple joints, this can cause increased pain throughout the body depending on the weather. In a study done in the journal Pain (2014), “two-thirds of people living with joint pain across the country report weather related joint pain.” However, there is no one place or paradise which offers a pain free climate.

Cold weather and humid weather, in particular are implicated in causing joint pain. In cold weather muscles and ligaments can tighten up and become stiff. In humid weather, pressure on the body causes swelling and increased pain. Therefore, it is important to warm up first in the cold weather and cool down in humid weather.

Options for reducing weather related joint pain include routines for managing arthritic pain in general like medications, which need to be prescribed by your provider; an exercise plan developed by a physical therapist; and, heat and cold therapies. Upon arising, a warm shower can ease a stiff achy body. At the end of a hot summer day, a dip in a cool pool or even a cool shower can reduce inflammation in the joints. Cool packs and warm packs are also available over the counter, but caution needs to be taken with use of a heating pad, which if left on too long, can cause a burn.

Why Your Joints Hurt When the Weather Changes

Blame it on the barometric pressure: Any change in pressure, or the weight of the air pressing against the surface of the earth, can trigger joint pain or headaches in some people.

So when your great-aunt said she could “feel” a storm coming on, she was likely right.

“Arthritis affects everything else within the joint itself, including the joint lining, which we call the synovium, as well as the ligaments that are within the joint,” Dr. James Gladstone, co-director of sports medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told “All of those tissues have nerve endings in them, so they’re going to feel changes in the weather as tightness in the joint, or stiffness.”

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Although research conclusions on this have been mixed, anecdotal evidence from patients — and most experts — support a link between the two. According to a survey published in the journal Pain, two-thirds of people living with chronic joint complaints in San Diego, Nashville, Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, believed there to be a link between their pain and weather changes.

The same goes for migraines, which patients also say are linked to weather patterns. Barometric pressure changes, as well as changes in humidity and temperature, might affect the pressure in the brain, or the way the brain blocks pain, Dr. Steven Graff-Radford, director of the program for headache and orofacial pain at the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told last year, though the mechanism is somewhat unknown. “What’s quite clear, however, is that overcast, cloudy and rainy days produce more migraine headaches,” he said.

Depending on how severe joint or headache pain is, patients should see their doctors to create a changing-weather treatment plan, Dr. Gladstone said.

As the seasons shift, weekend warriors who don’t typically have joint pain should take extra precautions, as well, he added. “Anything cold causes muscles, ligaments and tendons to sort of tighten up, and that makes them stiffer,” Dr. Gladstone said. “So if you’re going to be doing stuff in cold weather, you want to make sure you warm up well first, and as importantly, have protective clothing on, so you don’t get too cold.”

Stretching indoors, jogging in place (if you’re going for a run), heat creams and heating pads can all help loosen up stiff joints, Dr. Gladstone said, adding. “The main thing is to make sure you warm up well.”

As for weather-related pain, it hurts, but it’s only temporary: Your joints should return to normal as soon as the weather changes.

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