why do my joints ache more in winter?

“I feel under the weather”, “my knee always aches when it’s cold”, “my pain disappears when I’m in Tenerife – I don’t suppose you can prescribe holidays?!” said 75% of patients October to April. We all feel that the weather affects our bodies, but why? and how? This is something that everybody has known for years, but science hasn’t been able to put its finger on exactly why!

Research by consultant rheumatologist Professor Will Dixon has however been able to tell us when most people feel the difference and predict why this happens.

Person walking in the rain

An app called “Cloudy with a chance of pain” asked people to rate their pain each day and mention any other lifestyle factors (sleep, stress and activity levels etc). It then used their phone’s GPS signal to find out the local weather. Pretty clever stuff  right? They found that people with arthritis and long term pain were 20% more likely to have increased pain levels when the weather was humid, windy, and low pressured.

According to the Met Office, high pressure tends to cause fine, warm weather, while low pressure can lead to prolonged rainfall and flooding

Well, why is this?

Here are a few potential reasons:

The body prioritises the organs

You can live without a hand but not a liver! When it’s very cold, the body wants to ensure that the important bits (that keep you alive) have a good blood supply and stay warm. It prioritises your important internal organs over everything else. It does this by constructing the blood vessels in the limbs and forces the blood inwards to keep the organs warm and functioning optimally. (This is why your hands and feet are first to feel cold and drop off from frostbite). Less blood flow in the limbs makes those areas feel colder and stiffer, which can cause discomfort and pain.

We get lazy

We look out the window, see that its grey, cold, and damp, and think to ourselves “I’m not going out in that!”, turn around and stick Netlfix on.  So this means we’re not as active as we usually are. We know exercise is good for the body and when we don’t do enough, pain levels tend to jump up. Therefore, it is not the weather itself but what the weather makes us do (or not do) that is important!

When we have joint pain, there is often inflammation. This is why your doctor often advises anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen). When we don’t move, this inflammation builds up, leaving us feeling stiffer and sorer. Think about your day, body parts tend to stiffen up when we dont move for a while – in bed, at the desk at work, watching.

Neural sensitivity

Bear with me on this one. When mother nature created the body, she put pain and temperature down the same pathway. Or, the same nerves in the spinal cord carry both pain and temperature signals. This is often why using heat or cold at a painful area can feel pretty good. But for the same reason, a little too much of this input may irritate the already sensitive nerves and increase the pain you feel.

Pressure changes

The final common reason mentioned is that when the weather changes, there is change in barometric pressure and this can affect the fluid inside the joints. It is mentioned humid weather can make the fluid thicker and therefore stiffer, but there doesn’t appear to be much evidence backing this idea.



so what can we do to help?

keep warm

  • When you’re at home it can be nice to wrap your legs in a blanket
  • Microwaveable slippers for feet
  • Heat packs

keep active

  • Blood is moved around the body – this in itself warms up the limbs making them feel easier
  • Strengthens muscles supporting the joint
  • Pumps extra lubricating fluid into the area (basically spraying some homemade WD40 into the joint) 
  • Removes inflammation from the area
  • Increases cartilage building substances into the area

keep a diary

  • You can be your own researcher and write up a diary on how your pain feels and what the weather is. It’s also important to add sleep, diet, mood, stress, and activity as these may have a great effect on your pain than just the weather. once you begin to recognise your typical triggers, you can start to adapt your lifestyle to reduce their effect on your pain
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