It sounds like one of the oldest medical myths. However, the idea that weather and cold temperatures affect joint pain isn’t something easily disproven. Nor is it something that can conclusively be said to be true.
Anecdotal evidence aside, there’s little research to suggest a real link between temperature and joint pain – but neither is there a study that properly dissects this potential correlation, instead only trying to measure doctor’s visits around certain weather conditions (and as we all know, not every ache or pain results in a visit to the doctor’s).
However, when you take into account the anecdotal evidence, any orthopedic doctor will tell you that they treat a very vocal minority of patients who insist they can tell when they weather changes based on how their knees and hips feel. And it isn’t just little meteorological changes. Doctors will tell you that patients seem to complain more of pain in the cold.
Not an Old Wives Tale
So, is it myth or reality? Like most things in life, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There must be something to the claim that cold weather affects your joints. But there’s nothing conclusive to prove it yet, either. However, as it so often happens, we may just be a few short years from that crucial evidence.
If we work under the assumption that it’s a real thing, then the next step is trying to figure out why. Physically and mentally, winter generally sucks. There’s less sunlight, constant cold temperatures, and the world around you slowly begins to lose color as leaves drain off trees and thick snow covers everything. It plays on our psyche, which in turn can influence our perception of pain.
But the fact that joint pain increases more than other aches and pains during the cold weather season is not entirely explained. Nevertheless, several hypotheses exist.
Why It Happens
We don’t know exactly why it happens, but we have several theories. All of these try to address several changes that occur inside and outside of our bodies during cold winter weather – including atmospheric pressure, circulation, exercise habits, sensitivity due to injury, and more.
Barometric pressure describes the weight of the sky on our shoulders – or more accurately, the pressure exerted on the surface of the earth by the weight of its atmosphere. This changes based on where you are on the planet, with different amounts pressure at different latitudes, longitudes, and altitudes, at different points of the year. While the changes are slight, they happen most often when the weather shifts from a clear sky to a rainy day (and vice versa), and clouds gather (or dissipate) overhead. While one might assume that an increase in pressure leads to joint pain, it’s actually theorized to be the opposite. As the pressure drops, the pressure within our joints becomes higher relative to the pressure around us, and pain sensitivity shoots up.
Lack of Blood Flow
The cold can have an effect on the body. It causes our circulatory system to work harder to keep critical portions heated, specifically our organs. Muscles, joints, and extremities receive less blood as the surrounding temperature drops, which can cause nagging pains, especially in injured or already painful joints. Keeping joints warm and well-supplied with blood is critical for pain prevention.
Let’s face it, it’s tougher to exercise during the winter – not only is the holiday season in the way of all your physical aspirations, but it’s harder to get out of bed, and you have less daylight to get things done to begin with. Couple that with the discomfort produced by cold and ugly weather, and it becomes much more attractive to simply hunker down and snuggle by a fire than get in a workout. However, staying active most of the year over may be keeping you pain-free – and quitting over the holidays, and subsequently putting on the appropriate amount of Christmas weight, can stress your joints out even more.
Hypersensitivity Due to Scarring/Injury
Some joint pain is the result of injury or overuse, especially in people with athletic backgrounds. Even if you’ve never had to go see a doctor for your joint issues, years of physical labor or sport can take its toll on your knees, hips, ankles, and other load-bearing joints, leading to wear-and-tear in the tissues that keep you moving. Strong, healthy muscles can counteract this problem by taking a lot of the weight off your joints, but once those muscles begin to atrophy, the full brunt of your years of activity will be felt. Part of general wear-and-tear or potential injury is scarring, as healed tissue never fully assumes the form it once had – and in many cases, improperly healed injuries can lead to increased sensitivity to a lot of things, including temperature.
Thicker Synovial Fluid
Another theory is that the cold is affecting the viscosity of your synovial fluid. This is the fluid that fills the gelatinous pockets that separate the hard and bony parts of your joints. It essentially acts as cushions to absorb shock. Synovial fluid needs to be free flowing to do its job right, but if it becomes too thick, then it can’t properly dissipate shock, meaning you feel each step and jump more than you should.
All of the Above
There’s a good chance that any given patient’s complaints of joint pain over the holiday season is owed to a wide number of different factors, including any or all of the above.
Pain is complicated, because it’s such a vague condition. It’s entirely subjective and can’t be properly measured by anything external. It’s also hard to pinpoint the cause of pain, particularly when it’s constant. The more important question is: how do we stop it?
How to Combat Joint Pain in Winter
Outside of aberrant causes that better explain a person’s joint pain – from inflammation to an undiagnosed condition – the best thing to do for winter joint pain is to fortify and strengthen your joints’ weaknesses, and get them fit and ready for the cold.
The best way to combat cold weather pain is to not be cold. Whenever you can, try to bundle up. Make sure that your joints are nice and warm at any point during the winter season. A knee sleeve or knee brace made of thick of neoprene can compress and soothe joint pain and help keep your knees warm once you get more blood flowing into them. Speaking of which.
Try to Get Moving
As much as it may suck to train during the winter, you need to make time for a little exercise over the holiday season. You don’t have to exercise indoors, or even get a gym membership. There are plenty of ways to get moving and get warm indoors, including yoga, dynamic stretching, and simple calisthenics.
Warm Up More Before Exercise
If you’re warming up indoors, try to give yourself at least five minutes of dynamic stretching. And add a simple movement to get your heart-rate up. If you’re warming up outdoors, make it ten minutes.
Get a Depression Screening
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs most often during winter months. This type of depression deals with a lack of sunlight. More than just sadness, depression can also cause many physical symptoms, including much greater pain sensitivity.
When It’s More Than Joint Pain
Joint pain during the winter might be masking the onset of something more serious. It could be from a type or arthritis to some other joint-related health issue. If simply turning up the heat and doing some stretching isn’t getting the job done, consider seeing a doctor.