How To Move Without Pain

Does cold weather affect Osteoarthritis?

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

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Ask anyone with osteoarthritis and they can tell you when the cold wet weather is coming because of their painful, stiff joints.  Osteoarthritis is a very common joint disease affecting the joint cartilage that is between the bones.  Whether it’s believed to be a phenomenon or fact, those with osteoarthritis believe they are better than the weatherman when predicting a storm. Cold days during winter or rainy days are often dreaded for people with arthritis.  So does cold weather affect Osteoarthritis, let’s go look at the facts. 

The cartilage within the joints is a firm, yet spongy tissue that enables smooth (nearly frictionless) joint motion between two bones. As the cartilage tissues can break down with wear and tear or chronic disease. These changes usually develop slowly and worsen over time with more than 32.5 million people affected with osteoarthritis at some point in their life. 

Pain and stiffness in and around the joint and also swelling are common symptoms with osteoarthritis and in some cases, may reduce function causing disability.  Most with osteoarthritis are asymptomatic or only have intermittent pain until the cartilage breakdown progresses enough that the joint becomes painful, swollen, and stiff during activity.  For some, it may progress to cause symptoms at rest also.

Osteoarthritis symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time. Typical signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • Affected joints may hurt during or after movement, especially when weight-bearing.
  • Joint stiffness might be most noticeable upon awakening (but no longer than 30minutes) or after being inactive (like sitting for a prolonged period of time).
  • Tenderness when the joint is touched from pressure around the joint edges
  • Loss of range of motion or mobility and reduced joint flexibility. 
  • Noises in the joint with movement; it could sound like pops, crackling or a grating sound/sensation.
  • Visually the joint might look different, such as having a different angle or appearing more boney or enlarged compared to the opposite side. 
  • Swelling around the joint due to soft tissue inflammation.

Is there actually a connection between arthritic joint pain and cold, wet weather?

Any joint can be affected, yet the disorder most commonly involves joints in the hands, knees, hips, and spine.  Often the cold and damp weather affects those living with arthritis.  As the temperatures drop and the damp weather re-appears this type of climate can create increased pain to joints, pressure, or stiffness with movement. 

Most commonly people will report more pain and stiffness as the storm is approaching, rather than when the storm is actually present. Researchers relate this phenomenon to the barometric pressure change that occurs when a storm is rolling into an area. Barometric pressure also known as atmospheric pressure is the force or weight of the air on our bodies. As a storm system develops, the barometric pressure begins to drop, possibly leading to a change in fluid pressure within the joints.

Some people, especially those with joint inflammation, recovering from surgery, or those with more severe osteoarthritis may be more sensitive to the weather changes than others. 

What can you do to reduce your osteoarthritis joint pain in cold winter weather?

  1. Stay warm. When heading outside, dress in layers to keep yourself warm, wear an extra sweater and take your hat/gloves when you go outside. Use a heating pad or heated blanket. 

  2. Use your daily shower as therapy. Use a warm bath or warm shower to increase your joints’ mobility and decrease your pain by moving your joints in comfortable repeated movements to loosen the joints and improve joint mobility. 

  3. Keep Moving.  Movement no matter the weather is important. Stretches help to maintain your mobility and range of motion – and can help keep pain at bay.  Frequent short bouts of activity is more beneficial than longer activities, especially if it is something new to you. Walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi are considered gentle on joints and good for newbies. 
  4. Keep it pain-free. There is a difference between painful and harmful activities, which is important to keep in mind when doing any activity. Any activity can become harmful if you push too much too soon, either by not resting enough between activities or doing too much during a certain activity. Stiffness may be an initial joint symptom but with activity should lessen. Soreness during activity is ok, if it lasts longer than 30minutes after the activity is over, consider altering the activity to avoid inflaming the joint more. 
  5. Talk to your doctor. Managing joint pain so you can maintain mobility is key. Therefore, if the pain is too great and stops you from being able to do daily activity, also talk to your MD about options. 

There is an inherent habit of hibernating during cold or rainy weather. Yet a lack of activity causes our joints to become stiff, muscles to weaken, tissues to tighten, and possibly become less flexible.

Exercise is good for osteoarthritis and should be completed daily to help joints stay limber and lubricated. 

To manage osteoarthritic joints during the colder months, people need to plan physical activities that are easy to do during winter, such as:

  • Walking indoors, such as around shopping centers, grocery stores, or the hallways of their house
  • Swimming or pool exercises class (indoors)
  • Taking an aerobics or yoga class
  • Listening to music and dancing
  • Using the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Use your hallways for exercises: sidestepping, high knee walking, lunge walks

The danger of increased joint pain during the winter is a potential risk of immobility. Painful joints tend to make us less active, leading to further joint stiffness and muscle weakness.

Reduced activity is linked to changes in strength, balance, and is a leading reason why people fall as they age. Staying active to maintain joint mobility, muscle strength, and overall activity safety are key factors to continuing to live a safe and functional life no matter the temperature outside or the amount of osteoarthritis you have.

*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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man outside in winter with knee pain