Some people consider winter to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” However, for those with chronic joint pain, the season’s downward-shifting temperatures can make it the most painful time of the year.
There is no exact science behind the alleged link between cold weather and an increase in stiff, painful joints. However, those who experience a change in mobility during winter months will agree that the link is more than an old wives’ tale.
“Pain is a difficult thing to quantify,” said Dr. John Mast, associate medical director at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown. “Many residents complain of increased pain with barometric or weather changes. If that’s what they experience, then the two are connected.”
People with ligament injuries, nerve pain from pinched nerves, or who underwent joint-replacement surgery are all susceptible to cold-sensitive joints. However, it most commonly affects those with arthritis. Nearly 50 percent of people ages 65 years or older are diagnosed with some form of arthritis, whether it is osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or gout, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The popular theory of joint expansion and contraction attempts to explain increased joint discomfort in cold weather, but Dr. Mast thinks a decrease in activity during the winter is a key contributor.
“When individuals are less active, arthritis is much worse, since exercise is the most beneficial treatment for arthritis,” he said.
Although you can’t instantly change the weather, you can always tweak your activity level. These include fitness classes, cardio, and weight equipment, indoor pools, walking paths, sports courts and more.
“An arthritic joint is like a rusty hinge. Bone spurs form and restricts the affected joint’s range-of-motion, just like the rust which keeps a hinge from moving. The best way to make a rusty hinge work better is to move it back and forth repeatedly and to keep it moving. The same goes for an arthritic joint,” Dr. Mast said.
While taking a pill or applying a cream to the source of pain may appear to be the most convenient way to combat the bitter winter chill’s effects on joints, combining prevention and pain management is the best option. Regular exercise and treatment – when needed – will help maintain joint functionality, regardless of the season.