In this article, Dr Veena Patel, Consultant Rheumatologist at the Nuffield Health Leicester Hospital explores how the cold weather and winter can affect our joints and the ways we can manage the pain and discomfort at home.
1. Keep warm
During winter, it’s vital you keep yourself warm.
The NHS recommends home temperatures to be maintained at a minimum of 18 degrees.
Vinyl flooring, wall insulation, double glazed windows and drought-proofing are all ways to trap heat inside your home without raising the heating bills.
Wearing appropriate winter clothing, such as loose thick clothes and gloves, and also using hand warmers and heated blankets can be incredibly useful.
2. Staying active
It’s normal to feel less motivated during the cold weather, but remember that exercise is one of the best things you can do to stave off joint pain.
Exercise not only helps increase the blood supply into our muscles, but it helps to ease pain and boost energy levels.
Stretching for 5 minutes before and after exercise is important, especially during the cold weather, as this prevents muscle and joint injury. Exercise also releases feel-good hormones and endorphins which improves our mood and our overall sense of well-being.
Lastly, remember that spreading your exercise plan across the week is better than cramming all your activities in as this reduces the amount of time you spend sedentary every day.
3. Take regular Vitamin D supplements
Vitamin D is sometimes referred to as the “sun-vitamin”. It’s essential for bone, teeth and muscle health and is linked with many conditions like osteoporosis, hip fractures, autoimmune disease (such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease), chronic pain management, and respiratory tract infection.
As the body produces Vitamin D when we’re exposed to sunlight, many people will have lower levels, especially between October and early March. Therefore, it’s vital we take supplements for it and consume food like oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), red meat, egg yolks and fortified foods (some fat spreads and breakfast cereals)
4. Reduce your risk of falls and injury
During the winter months, footpaths get wet and slippery. Being cautious and using well-fitted, supportive footwear can help minimise your risk of falls and injury when out and about.
Simple adjustments at home can also help. These include avoiding spillages on floors, replacing frayed areas of carpet, and making sure rooms, passages and staircases are brightly lit.
If you use them, getting your mobility aids and support reviews by a physiotherapist or occupational therapist is a good way to make sure you’ve got what you need to keep you safe and secure during winter.
5. Prioritise healthy eating and hydration
In cold weather, it is natural to crave comfort food. The holiday season is about celebrating with family and friends and that can influence us to indulge in alcohol and unhealthy food. Being conscious of this is important in order to stay hydrated and maintain a balanced diet.
Sipping warm fluids like herbal tea or flavoured water all helps us consume more water. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables also helps with hydration and getting in more of those essential nutrients that help with our overall health and wellbeing.
All of these contribute to maintaining a healthy weight and lowering the amount of stress and pressure we put on our bones.
6. Ensure you are appropriately vaccinated
We know that during winter months we spend more time indoors, allowing viruses to pass easily between us. This increases our risk of cold, flu and other respiratory tract infections.
This is more common among patients whose immune system is affected by treatment for auto-immune conditions. Along with the general respiratory hygiene measures like stopping smoking, it is important that you take the flu and covid vaccine information from your GP or pharmacist.
Who can be affected in winter?
When winter arrives, you may notice your joints get more achy and stiff. This is the case in most people living with arthritis – be it osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis.
Anyone with a condition that has joint pain or inflammation as a symptom may feel their symptoms get worse during winter. This includes people living with:
- Chronic pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
Why does winter make joint pain worse?
Cold weather can make your joints painful and less easy to move. A study by the University of Manchester involving more than 13,000 participants reported to have more pain on days with higher humidity, stronger winds and low pressure.
Scientists don’t yet understand the exact reasons why, but more research is being carried out to better understand the reasons for such attenuated pain perception during the colder months, so that it allows us to develop effective treatments to help those with arthritis.
Possible explanations include the changes in the synovium (the soft tissues lining the joint that produce lubricating fluid) thickening during winter.
Another explanation may be the drop in the barometric pressure leading to expansion and swelling of the muscles and tendons. Others believe that seasonal affective disorder commonly known as “winter depression” due to lack of sunlight, impacting the levels of melatonin and serotonin hormones, affects our mood and sleep resulting in a lack of energy and high pain perception.
When to see a professional
- If your limbs become extremely cold, especially below the knee and alongside changes in colour, it is advisable you consult your doctor as soon as possible. This could be the initial symptoms of medical conditions affecting the blood supply to limbs (clots or stiffening of the blood vessels-peripheral artery disease)
- If you develop limb weakness, redness, and soreness in the joints along with excessive exhaustion or sweating, (especially among patients with inflammatory arthritis), it is advisable you see a rheumatologist
- If you see any ulcers on the tips of your fingers or toes (especially among patients with severe Raynaud’s or long standing diabetics), please visit your doctor for help early on to prevent infection
- If you are feeling extremely low, sad, tearful, not unable to sleep or function normally, it may be that you are developing seasonal affective disorder. Your GP can help you with medication and counselling to help.
Dr Veena Patel is an experienced Rheumatologist, practising at the Nuffield Health Leicester Hospital. For more information on Dr Patel, click here or call our team on 0300 131 1416.
Last updated Thursday 7 December 2023
First published on Thursday 7 December 2023