Arthritis and cold weather are often thought to go hand in hand. Certainly, a lot of patients tell us they’ve come to expect their knee pain will worsen as the winter sets in.
So what’s the link between arthritis pain and cold weather? Or indeed is there one? And, in any case, if your knee pain does seem to flare up in the winter, what can you do about it?
Here’s a quick guide to the problem of winter-related knee pain.
What does the science say? (it’s more complicated than you’d think)
Statistically, it does seem that more people experience arthritis-related pain when the winter arrives. A 2013 study from Spain found 50- to 65-year-old patients with rheumatoid arthritis were 16% more likely to report a flare-up when temperatures dropped below average. “Our results support the belief that weather influences rheumatic pain in middle aged patients,” they concluded.
More recent research backed by the charity Versus Arthritis came to a similar conclusion, albeit with a slightly different culprit in view. “People with long-term health conditions can be up to 20 percent more likely to suffer from pain on days that are windy with low atmospheric pressure,” they reported.
On the face of it, that sounds conclusive: cold weather makes arthritis worse. Scientifically, however, the picture is less clear. In fact there’s little evidence to suggest colder temperatures have a biological impact on joints with arthritis.
Given that many patients report worsening symptoms, it seems a bit unfair to say they’re making it up. So what else might be going on?
Other possible factors
We know that some aspects of winter weather definitely do affect joint pain. For example:
Reduced activity – Mobility makes a big difference to our joints. Our muscle fibres need to flex and contract regularly in order to maintain their strength and function. Without it, they quickly begin to weaken and deteriorate: one study on weightlessness in space found that astronauts can lose as much as 20% of their muscle mass in just five to 11 days. When the weather turns, our activity levels drop too – and reduced mobility means an increase in stiffness for people with arthritis in their joints.
More sensitivity – There’s also plenty of evidence that we feel pain more keenly when the temperature drops. Cold temperatures reduce blood flow around the body, and reduced blood flow can increase nerve pain. There’s also some evidence that drops in air pressure can negatively impact nerve pain (which perhaps explains the second study mentioned, above). In other words, it’s possible that winter makes us notice aches and pains more.
Lower mood – Many of us know what it feels like to get the winter blues in the depths of January or February. It’s darker, we’re getting out less, we’re not exercising so much or seeing other people so frequently. These lifestyle factors can have an impact on mood – and it’s widely acknowledged that depression makes pain worse: in fact the NHS lists “unexplained aches and pains” as one of the physical symptoms of clinical depression. Since depression often leads to reduced activity, it can set in motion a vicious cycle where, ultimately, our joints end up getting less and less mobile.
How can we fight back?
Although it’s common to feel slightly burdened by the long winter months, they shouldn’t be a prescription for unbearable knee pain. There are lots of things we can do to manage arthritis and its symptoms, particularly as the temperature drops. Here are some to consider:
Exercise – being conscious of the likely drop in activity levels can be a helpful spur to try out some alternatives. If walking and running are out, we might consider switching to the gym or the local swimming pool
Physio – winter is a good time to get acquainted with the kinds of exercises that can make a huge difference to joint pain. A physical therapist can develop a bespoke programme that will help you improve your mobility (from the comfort of your living room)
Vitamin D – some studies have suggested that Vitamin D is linked to reduced pain in arthritis sufferers. Our Vitamin D levels drop during the winter with the reduced light – so, alongside a healthy diet, it may be worth considering a supplement if your own Vit D levels are low
Self-care – since low mood is closely linked to pain, it’s worth considering the mental health component to winter and the potential implications for arthritis. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real issue for some of us – you can find out more about it in the NHS website’s mental health section
Targeted pain relief – if you’re really struggling with knee pain, we can look at your current medication and see whether we might change it or increase the dosage – even if temporarily, over the winter months. Beyond simple analgesics, steroid injections can make a big difference too: we can discuss this option with you in clinic if you feel it might be helpful
If you’re struggling with knee pain and would appreciate some help and advice, please get in touch. Our team will be really happy to listen to your issues, and book you an appointment with Mr Bailey if we think it would be helpful.