For many people with joint injuries and joint conditions such as arthritis, pain feels worse when the temperature drops. Here’s why it happens and what you can do to ease the discomfort.
Do you dread winter in anticipation of worsened joint pain or stiffness - whether you engage in outdoor sport or exercise or suffer from a joint condition such as arthritis? This experience is common. While the effects of colder weather on pain are subject to debate and ongoing research, there are plausible reasons why you may feel pain in the colder months. Fortunately, there are also simple DIY ways to feel better!
The offender: Air pressure
It is difficult to draw a definite conclusion about whether changes in barometric air pressure (also known as atmospheric pressure) affect the severity of joint pain. But some research and experts suggest that changes in barometric air pressure may cause tissues to expand, placing pressure on joints. This has particularly been explored in conditions such as arthritis, which many people report worsens in winter (in fact, some physicians refer to ‘arthritis weather’).
The offender: Couch time
It’s dreary. Dark. Cold. Who wouldn’t rather curl up on the couch or stay in bed than go for a run or hit the gym? While vegging out may feel good at the time, inactivity in autumn and winter can set you up for pain. Without an adequate amount of regular movement, joints can become stiff and muscles lose condition, meaning that when you do return to activity (or even beforehand), you’re at greater risk of pain or injury. If you don’t feel you can continue your summer exercise regimen in the colder months, swap it for a winter-friendly routine you can maintain, comprising both aerobic and resistance or weight-bearing activity. Think indoor gym work and swimming or water aerobics, yoga and treadmill runs, Pilates...you can stay cozy and warm while keeping your joints strong, mobile and supple.
The offender: Pain expectations
Memories of painful winters can create an expectation of pain, which can actually ‘create’ the experience of pain (in a similar way to when you’re faced with a food that once made you sick and you feel nauseous just imagining eating it). In fact, neuroscience research suggests that the brain may not be able to tell the difference between thinking about, or imagining pain, and pain caused by responses to tissue damage. In studies using functional MRI technology, simply thinking about pain has activated the same brain areas as those activated by an ‘actual’ pain experience.
The offender: Magnified pain
Besides the type and severity of tissue injury or damage, our pain experience can be influenced by other factors including mood, confidence that pain will resolve or can be treated, and stress levels. Mood and mood-related brain chemicals are particularly relevant to autumn and winter, when increased darkness, lower activity levels and less engagement in rewarding activities can decrease levels of feelgood neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and endorphins, which may correlate with increased perception of pain. Subsequent inactivity, due to pain itself or low mood, may further exacerbate pain and fuel a kind of vicious circle.
Now for the good news. These DIY winter tips from our physiotherapists and chiropractors may reduce the severity of, or relieve, winter joint pain.
DIY winter pain-reducing tips:
- Layer up. When spending time outdoors (even when exercising), dress in layers to ensure your joints and muscles stay warm. Keep ambient room temperature at around 20 degrees and consider a heat blanket to warm the bed or over your knee on the couch.
- Warm up. Heat relaxes muscles and can help to soothe pain.
- Tighten up. Compression support cuffs and sleeves may help to ease pain in sore joints.
- Move up. Before exercise or sporting activity, take the time to warm up properly. If you’re not sure of the best exercises to prepare joints and muscles for your activity, ask your physio or chiropractor for a warm-up routine.
- Cheer up. You mightn’t feel like it, especially if you’re in pain, but push yourself to keep up activities that bring you pleasure and joy. Feelgood activities such as catching up with friends, indulging your passion for cooking or art or spending time with a treasured pet will benefit mood and mindset, which may indirectly help to lessen the severity of the pain you experience.
If you experience ongoing or recurring joint pain, consider consulting a chiropractor or physiotherapist to ascertain the cause, receive appropriate manual treatment and learn lifestyle and activity modifications to reduce pain and promote healing.