DPH Explores the Connection Between Joint Pain and Cold Weather

January 26, 2015

The idea that you can feel the weather changing in your bones has been a popular myth among people that struggle with joint health or arthritis.  Whether it’s a forthcoming storm or significant changes in temperatures, environmental factors have been a prime suspect in causing the sudden, and often unexplained, onset of arthritis symptoms.

PHWEEK explored this myth further to provide a deeper understanding of how arthritis patients are impacted by weather patterns and how diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle can better manage joint pain.

Contrary to what you may suspect, arthritis is not a single disease.  Instead, it is an informal way of referring to more than 100 types of joint diseases that affect 53 million adults and 300,000 children in the U.S. 

Symptoms vary according to each patient, but general symptoms can be found among all sufferers including swelling, pain, stiffness and decreased range in motion.  The wide range of symptoms and severity levels that range from mild to severe also make it challenging for patients to manage their symptoms consistently despite the weather patterns or seasons. 

According to the Arthritis Foundation, changes in temperature or barometric pressure, a measure that refers to the weight of the surrounding air, can trigger joint pain.  Findings from a 2007 research study at Tufts University reported that every 10-degree drop in temperature corresponded with an incremental increase in arthritis pain among the study’s participants.  The study also found that lower barometric pressure, low temperatures and precipitation can increase pain.

While it is suspected that changes in atmospheric conditions cause increased swelling in joints, scientists and researchers have yet to agree on a definitive answer on why weather patterns impact joint health.

Susanne Koch, MS, ACSM-HFS, PES, DPH worksite wellness coordinator, explains that maintaining a range of motion with proper exercise habits can ease joint pain during months with colder temperatures.   

“The cold weather is very difficult for those who have arthritis,” said Koch.  “If they are able to go outside to exercise, they need to be wearing warm layers that allow for easy range of motion at the joints.  For example, heavy pants in layers could make walking very difficult.  They also need to have an extended warm up and gentle stretching to end their workout.”

For arthritis patients not ready to brave the cold weather, indoor exercises or aquatic workouts are also just as effective as outdoor exercise routines.  If doing pool workouts, the recommended water temperature for arthritis is 82 – 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Weight training can be difficult for some arthritis sufferers so performing strengthening exercises with a smaller range of motion, such as planks, may be helpful.  Strength training is important and should not be overlooked, but it’s vital to modify the routine properly to reduce pain.

Although the myths regarding bad weather and join pain remain somewhat unexplained, one fact still holds true – diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are the most important keys to success when combating arthritis. 

Arthritis pain sometimes interferes with exercise regimes, which causes many arthritics have comorbidities related to obesity.  The additional weight can increase pain in the joints, subsequently deterring arthritis patients from exercising and effecitvely managing their weight. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite that nearly one in four adults with arthritis live with heart disease.  They also struggle with other comorbidities such as chronic respiratory conditions, diabetes and stroke.  Research also shows for every one pound of extra weight you carry, it places four pounds of pressure on your knees.

“Most types of arthritis can be managed well through exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, proper nutrition and collaborating with your health care professional,” said Koch. “While there are no foods that cure arthritis, it is best managed by eating a healthy, whole foods diet rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables as well as omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts.”

There are still a few months left in this year’s winter season in Georgia, leaving lots of opportunity for more cold weather and achy joints.  No matter your fitness level or arthritis severity, Koch encourages all arthritis patients to stay active.

“The most important thing to remember for anyone living with arthritis is that exercise is important,” Koch said.  “Despite recommendations of the past where those diagnosed were discouraged to exercise, research now shows they must exercise to maintain joint mobility and function.  Children and adults should follow the general physical activity guidelines for their age groups in the amount of exercise needed each week.”

To learn more about arthritis and how to manage the condition, visit the Arthritis Foundation at www.arthritisfoundation.org or the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics.htm.  

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