Dress warmly, work out inside, and get enough vitamin D. These are some of the ways you can get arthritis pain relief despite the bone-chilling cold of winter weather.
Many people with arthritis swear by the pain in their joints as a predictor of rainy or cold weather. “I used to hear people complain all the time that they knew rain was coming from the aching in their knees,” says Pam Snow, 54, of Denver, who has arthritis. “Now I’m one of those people!”
Snow has osteoarthritis in both knees. She typically manages her pain with exercise, diet, weight loss, and the occasional over-the-counter pain reliever, but when winter weather sets in, Snow faces an extra joint-pain challenge. “I think it’s related to barometric pressure,” she says. “It definitely has made me more cognizant of the weather.”
For Snow, arthritis isn’t just a personal problem. As vice president for community involvement for the Colorado Arthritis Foundation, she travels the state educating others about the condition. So she’s aware that there’s very little scientific evidence to support her own experience, and that of the legions of others with arthritis who feel worse when the weather is frightful.
“In terms of really trying to scientifically study it, [research] is rather sparse and contradictory,” says rheumatologist Bonita S. Libman, MD, professor of medicine and division chief of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. Yet a lot of people do feel that weather affects their symptoms, Dr. Libman adds.
In fact, she says there may be some truth to the old wives’ tale that aching joints indicate a change in weather. According to some old studies Libman is familiar with, and which the Arthritis Foundation cites, people in barometric pressure chambers found that the lower the pressure, the more aches and pains they felt.
How to Find Arthritis Relief
Whether the joint pain/weather connection is scientifically true or not, you can still use these arthritis pain-relief tips when your aching joints act up in winter.
1. Dress Warmly
If it’s cold outside, keep aching hands warm with gloves, and add extra layers over knees and legs. “I’m one of those people who loves to wear dresses and skirts,” Snow says, “so when it’s cold, I also wear tights or leggings to stay warm.”
2. Layer Up
Snow, who moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Denver, says she loves being active in the Colorado weather, but knows it’s important to wear lots of layers so she can control her comfort level when temperatures shift dramatically during the day. For example, she layers a few pairs of gloves on her hands and can peel them off, one by one, as needed.
Snow found that when she moved to the drier climate of Colorado, she started drinking more water. “I really think [staying hydrated] has helped me stay active,” she says. Even mild dehydration might make you more sensitive to pain, according to study results published in the September 2015 issue of Experimental Physiology.
4. Lose Weight
When Snow moved to Colorado in 2013, she weighed 172 pounds, and her new doctor told her that at 5’6” she was obese.
“I heard that ‘O’ word and I thought, well, I don’t feel like I’m obese. I was always watching my weight by how my clothes fit,” she says. At that time, she comfortably wore a size 14. But she committed to losing weight and now clocks in at about 158 pounds and wears a size 10. She credits the more physically active culture of Colorado for some of her success. “There’s always someone to walk with,” she says.
And, as her activity levels went up and her weight went down, her arthritis improved, even in cold weather. Indeed, a 2013 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) highlighted the significant improvement people with knee arthritis can get from weight loss, from diet, and exercise.
5. Exercise Inside
While it’s understandable to want to avoid winter chill, people with joint pain should still stay active. The less sedentary you are, the better your physical function, according to a study of people with knee arthritis published in Arthritis Care & Research in March 2015. Come up with an indoor exercise plan. Snow has a treadmill and an elliptical trainer at home. Libman recommends walking the mall.
Swimming in a heated pool is both great exercise and soothing to joints. You can also get relief from warm baths, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Just don’t go right out into the cold after your soak. Let your body temperature normalize a bit first.
7. Supplement Vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D might play a role in how sensitive you are to arthritis pain, according to research in the September 2015 issue of Pain Management. Being deficient in vitamin D also raises the risk for osteoporosis, Libman warns. You’re less likely to get enough vitamin D from its natural source, sunlight, in the winter, so talk to your doctor about your need for supplements or vitamin D-fortified foods.
8. Stay Safe
Particularly when the weather turns icy, people with arthritis need to protect their joints from further damage. If you’re going outside, pick solid, supportive shoes with good treads and try to walk on a surface that doesn’t look slick, Libman advises.
9. Try a Glucosamine-Chondroitin Supplement
Although no herbal supplements have been proven to provide arthritis pain relief in clinical studies, and the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) does not recommend glucosamine-chondroitin for arthritis, Libman says that some of her patients do report relief from taking these supplements. “What I tell my patients is, if they can afford to pay for it and they want to give it a try, it seems to be a low-risk therapy for pain,” she says.
10. Add Fish Oil
“Omega-3 fatty acids do have some benefit because they seem to reduce the level of inflammation,” Libman says. The Arthritis Foundation recommends up to 2.6 grams of fish oil capsules twice a day. Make sure to let your doctor know if you try omega-3s, as they can increase the risk for bruising or bleeding.
11. Consider Acetaminophen or NSAIDs
Even if, like Snow, you prefer to treat your joint pain with lifestyle changes rather than medication, you may want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever when your joint pain seems to worsen with the weather. The ACR guidelines include a recommendation to use these over-the-counter pain relievers for osteoarthritis. However, Libman says that, “to avoid side effects, take the lowest dose for the shortest amount of time, and always check with your doctor first to make sure it is safe for you to take.”
12. Get a Massage
Yes, you have permission to indulge yourself and get a massage. “A lot of what’s happening in terms of pain is [that] some is emanating from the joint and some from the muscles around the joint,” Libman explains. Getting an hour-long massage once a week for at least eight weeks was shown to reduce pain, according to research in the June 2015 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
13. Go Under the Needle
Acupuncture is another option for those willing to consider non-traditional treatments. “It does seem patients derive some benefit with regard to pain,” Libman says. You also might find the process relaxing and feel generally healthier, according to research in the August 2015 issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.