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Is Joint Pain Worse in Cold Weather?

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A woman experiences pain in her knee when she gets out of her car

People often blame cold weather or an impending storm for their increased joint pain. Are the two connected? And if so, what’s really causing the pain?

“It’s true that you can have more symptoms in cold weather, humid climates and when storms approach,” says University Hospitals rheumatologist Marie Kuchynski, MD. “People who scoff at the idea probably don’t notice weather-related joint pain because their joints are healthy and adjust well to weather changes.”

How Weather May Affect Joints

A number of weather-related factors can affect joint physiology. Depending on your joint health – especially with aging or arthritis or prior trauma – certain weather conditions can increase joint pain and/or stiffness.

Cold: Joints have two structures that enable easy and pain-free movement. Cartilage cushions bone surfaces to reduce wear and synovial fluid lubricates the joint so it moves smoothly. Healthy synovial fluid is the consistency of egg whites. But when the weather gets colder, synovial fluid thickens. This reduces its slipperiness, which increases joint friction during movement and, over time, wears down protective cartilage. More friction results in more pain.

Barometric pressure: When air pressure drops, the joints sense and respond to it. Soft tissues around the joint expand slightly under lower air pressure. The swelling increases pressure on the joint, resulting in stiffness and discomfort or pain during movement.

High humidity: When the barometric pressure drops, rain or snow are also more likely. High humidity can cause soft tissue swelling and bring more discomfort to the joints. This is especially true in colder temperatures.

Other Factors Matter, Too

Additional factors can make people more susceptible to weather-related joint pain:

Nerve hypersensitivity: Joints irritated by injury, inflammation due to arthritis, or surgical joint repair or replacement can make the nerves in that area hypersensitive to weather-related factors. This increases sensations of pain, numbness or burning.

Reduced activity: When it’s cold outside, we tend to be less active. When combined together, the cold temperatures and inactivity allow joints to stiffen. Flexibility suffers and joint pain often increases as a result.

How to Ease Weather-Related Joint Pain

Having a variety of tools in your arsenal can help you prepare for and manage when weather-related joint pain may be in the forecast:

  • Keep joints warm. When temperatures drop or conditions are wet, take extra care to keep yourself warm. Wear warm socks and extra layers. Take a bath or hot shower. Use a heating pad when you’re relaxing. All of it will help decrease pain and stiffness.
  • Explore pain relief options. Talk with your doctor about prescription and over-the-counter medications to help make your pain more manageable. Many people find also relief with arthritis cream or other topical balms.
  • Skip heavy lifting or exertion. On days that you’re feeling more pain or stiffness, don’t strain your joints by pushing your body too far. Stick to gentle movements and stretching.

Most importantly, be sure to plan range of motion activities into your day, especially on those cold, damp days when going outside for a walk is not possible. “Movement is medicine. It is the one of the best things you can do to keep your joints mobile and pain free, no matter what the weather is,” advises Dr. Kuchynski.

Related Links

The Division of Rheumatology at University Hospitals offer a comprehensive approach to the diagnosis, management and treatment of rheumatic diseases in adults and children. Learn more.

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