If you’re one of those people who “feel it in your bones” when the temperature drops, you’re not alone. In fact, extra aches and pains this time of year in your joints or at the site of old injuries is relatively common for those with arthritis.
Why it hurts
The cold temperatures don’t cause arthritis, but studies have shown that cold can increase joint pain caused by either inflammatory or non-inflammatory arthritis. While it is still not clear to researchers why cold weather exacerbates arthritis, joint pain, and stiffness, there are some theories. A fall in barometric pressure, a result of a cold front approaching, can cause joints to expand. Low temperatures may also increase the thickness of the synovial fluid (our joints’ natural shock absorber), which makes joints stiff and more sensitive to pain.
Managing cold-weather arthritic pain
Here are eight strategies for managing your arthritis this winter when the temperature drops.
It may seem obvious, but keeping your body warm is an effective way to avoid the joint discomfort that can accompany cold weather. Layer up, particularly where you tend to experience the most discomfort. Consider warm gloves and liners for hands, long underwear and windproof pants to protect knees and hips, and thermal layers under your jacket to keep elbows warm.
Swimming in a heated pool, soaking in a hot tub, or using a heating pad can also provide relief from the discomfort of cold weather. The warmth can boost blood flow, help flush pain-producing chemicals, and stimulate receptors in your skin that improve pain tolerance. Warmth also relaxes muscles, decreasing spasms and stiffness.
Winter coincides with holiday gatherings, which often translate to overindulging in rich and sweet food. Food high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat; processed and red meats; alcohol, and even gluten have been linked to increased inflammation and may worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Any foods that are anti-inflammatory in nature can help manage joint pain. Think of foods rich in Vitamin D like mushrooms or omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish, leafy greens, nuts, berries, and monounsaturated fats like olive oil.
While no studies confirm that stress irritates arthritis, it can cause people to overtax their bodies. The holiday season can be hectic. Running around, shopping, cooking for a crowd, and experiencing mental stress all take a toll on the body, which can exacerbate joint pain. Exercise, meditation, yoga, and other ways of relaxing and slowing down can help manage wintertime arthritic pain.
Physical activity helps increase strength and flexibility, boosts energy, and helps ease pain, but people tend to move less in winter. While those with arthritis are often managing pain related to movement, it’s important to keep moving to help mitigate pain.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends adults with arthritis and no other severe health conditions do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two strength-training sessions every week. The Mayo Clinic offers these guidelines for exercising with arthritis.
Exercise has the additional benefit of managing weight. Being overweight is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis, so losing just a few pounds can diminish the risk of developing or exacerbating arthritis. Even mild weight loss greatly reduces the load on weight-bearing joints like knees and hips.
Consider compression gloves
For those with arthritic hand pain, compression gloves can be beneficial. They work like compression socks by squeezing the joints to encourage additional blood flow. Some even help trap heat, so your hands stay warm.
Get your vitamin D
Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is produced when the body absorbs sunlight through the skin. There is strong support for vitamin D’s role in bone health, and patients with rheumatoid or other inflammatory arthritis show more severe pain if their vitamin D levels drop. Low vitamin D can also increase sensitivity to pain. If regular access to direct sunshine is not feasible, focus on eating foods rich in vitamin D (like fatty fish, milk, mushrooms, orange juice, eggs, and fortified dairy products) or take a vitamin D supplement of 600-800 IU.
Getting a full and restful night of sleep does wonders for your body and can help you deal better with arthritis. Studies show poor sleep is linked to fatigue, more pain, and higher levels of depression in those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.
Get your annual flu shot
Those with arthritis are more susceptible to getting infections like the flu and pneumonia, having more severe reactions, and taking longer to recover.Arthritis compromises how well your body fights off infections, and certain medications used to control the disease can further weaken the immune system. Winter is flu season, and the annual flu vaccine is your best defense against getting flu.
If you are not successfully managing your arthritic pain this winter, don’t suffer in silence. The physicians of Great Basin Orthopaedics can help. Our surgeons have the expertise and a variety of treatment approaches, ranging from conservative to aggressive, to support patients with arthritis. Call 775.786.1600 and schedule an appointment today.