Why is Arthritis Worse in the Winter?
Jan 11, 2022 Amy Paturel
If you suffer from arthritis, whether inflammatory or not, you've probably noticed your joints getting crankier as the weather turns colder. But why are arthritis symptoms worse during the winter?
"Our joints operate best in temperate weather," says Dr. Mariko L. Ishimori, Interim Director at the Cedars-Sinai Division of Rheumatology. "When the weather gets cooler, the synovial fluid that acts like motor oil in our joints becomes more like sludge."
Some people are so sensitive to the weather that their aching joints act as a signal that a storm is coming.
Reducing winter-related arthritis pain
While cold weather doesn't cause arthritis, it can exacerbate aches and pains. According to the Arthritis Foundation, frigid temperatures can heighten pain sensitivity, slow blood circulation and cause muscle spasms. To make matters more complex, our joints can detect and respond to changes in barometric pressure (the amount of air pressure in the atmosphere).
"There's a lot we can do to ease joint pain and stiffness. You don't need to suffer in silence."
"A drop in barometric pressure can cause muscles and tendons to expand, which can put more stress on an already crowded joint," says Dr. Ishimori. "When your joint cap expands, you can feel that."
The good news: There are some simple things you can do to support your joints when the weather is working against you.
- Stay warm. If your joints don't like the winter chill, the best antidote is to stay warm. Layer up with hats, gloves and scarves, and use an electric heating pad or an electric blanket to keep yourself warm while you're napping. You might even consider soaking in a hot bath to help loosen stiff joints.
- Get moving. Exercise is the single best thing you can do to stave off arthritis pain and keep your joints happy. Regular physical activity helps boost energy and increase strength and flexibility. Exercise also releases a flood of feel-good hormones, which can help ease pain and suffering. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, including two strength-training sessions. "But start slow with short bouts of activity and build up gradually," suggests Dr. Ishimori. If you've been sedentary, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
- Stretch out. "Stretching regularly, especially before outdoor exercise, can help loosen stiff joints," says Dr. Ishimori. "When your muscles and joints are sufficiently warm, you're less likely to get injured." Start with simple movements: Roll your wrists and ankles, do some knee bends and stretch out your fingers and hands.
- Eat well. Making changes to your diet won't cure arthritis, but it may help reduce inflammation, strengthen bones and boost your immune system. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, nuts and seeds, may help fight inflammation. Just try to limit sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce pain and stiffness. After all, the more weight you carry around, the more pressure you'll place on your bones and tissues. Osteoarthritis is especially painful in joints that bear weight, such as the knees, hips and spine.
- Check your vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is remarkably common, even in sunny California. It's also linked with increasing arthritis pain. "Vitamin D deficiency contributes to bone loss, which can lead to damage over time," Dr. Ishimori says. Concerned you may be lacking vitamin D? Ask your doctor to test your levels and supplement accordingly.
- Watch your footing. Taking a spill may seem like a minor issue, but a simple fall can be devastating, particularly as we age. "Our bodies aren't used to navigating slick surfaces," Dr. Ishimori says. "And if your joints are damaged from arthritis, your sense of balance and proprioception may be affected." Your best bet: Take your time (walking too quickly can up your odds of slipping) and wear proper footwear and non-skid slippers.
Give yourself grace
Winter can be challenging for people with arthritis. It's important to take a step back and assess the situation. Explore how your joints respond to colder temperatures. Then, determine which lifestyle changes can make you (and your joints) feel better. If you go into the winter season prepared, you'll be better equipped to nourish your joints.
Still struggling? Talk to your doctor about treatments and lifestyle strategies that can help you navigate the winter months with less pain.
"There's a lot we can do to ease joint pain and stiffness," says Dr. Ishimori. "You don't need to suffer in silence."