One in four adults in the U.S. has arthritis, and the prevalence of arthritis is expected to grow in the coming decades. Many people with arthritis find their symptoms get worse when the weather changes in the fall and winter and temperatures hover near freezing.
Cold weather doesn’t cause arthritis, but experts say it can make aches and pains worse. Here’s what you need to know – and when to see a doctor.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is not just one disease. It encompasses more than 100 types of arthritis and related joint pain and joint disease conditions. It’s the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Common symptoms can include swelling, pain, stiffness and diminished range of motion. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can interfere with everyday activities. It’s important to work with a health care provider to get an accurate diagnosis of the type of arthritis affecting you.
Here are two common types of arthritis:
- Osteoarthritis: This is a disease of the whole joint, and can damage the bones, connective tissue and joint lining. It mainly affects the hands, spine, hips and knees.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This is the most common type of autoimmune inflammatory arthritis. The immune system becomes overactive and attacks healthy tissue, including joints.
Why is arthritis affected by cold weather?
Freezing temperatures can slow your blood circulation, heighten the body’s sensitivity to pain and cause muscle spasms. Often, as temperatures drop, the amount of air pressure in the atmosphere (barometric pressure) changes as well. Some people find their joints react to this type of change as well – as a drop in barometric pressure could cause the muscles and tendons in the body to expand; putting pressure on an already painful joint.
Protect yourself during cold weather months
People living with arthritis can take some proactive steps to manage their symptoms during cold weather months:
- Stay active. Low-impact exercises like biking, walking and swimming can help keep your body moving without adding stress to your joints. It can be difficult to be outside in the winter with ice and snow, so you may want to consider a gym membership or mall walking. Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise regime.
- Stay warm. Keep your body and joints warm to increase blood flow and help muscles relax. A variety of home remedies can help, like warm showers and baths, heating pads, electric blankets, hand warmers and warm drinks. Use layers of lightweight clothing to stay warm, particularly on areas that are the most sensitive.
- Eat a balanced diet. Certain foods may trigger inflammation. Try and incorporate foods that can help strengthen your bones, boost your immune system and reduce inflammation, like fatty fish, nuts and seeds – all of which have omega-3 fatty acids.
When to see a doctor
Joint pain can have may causes. It’s important to work with a health care provider to get an accurate diagnosis to move forward with a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Left untreated, some types of arthritis can cause permanent damage to the body.
The Arthritis Foundation advises making an appointment with your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms:
- Joint pain, tenderness, swelling or stiffness that lasts three or more days each month
- Several episodes of joint symptoms within a month’s span
Joint symptoms that are infrequent and mild should be monitored and discussed with a health care provider at regular check-ups.