Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Why Your Joints Ache More in Colder Weather — And What to Do About It

Pain caused by osteoarthritis can worsen in the winter. Experts share tips for fighting back

spinner image knee and joint pain in cold weather
Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

Have you ever noticed that your joints ache more when the temperatures start to dip?

You’re not alone. A handful of surveys and studies show that individuals with the most common form of arthritis — known as osteoarthritis, which affects nearly 33 million U.S. adults — experience more joint pain in colder weather. And the reason isn’t straightforward.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Here’s a look at why your joints may be crankier in colder weather — and what you can do to help alleviate the discomfort.

Dips in air pressure and physical activity

One reason for more seasonal soreness may have to do with the change in barometric pressure, or the measurement of air pressure in the atmosphere.

In warm weather, barometric pressure is high; when it gets cold, that pressure drops. And when that happens, “it can cause your tissue around the joint (muscles, tendons, etc.) to expand, which increases the pressure in the confined space in your joint,” explains Michael M. Kheir, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Michigan. The result can lead to joint pain.

Activity levels can contribute to increased pain and stiffness in the joints. And studies show that when the temperatures plunge, so do physical activity levels.

“During cold weather, we move less, especially if it’s snowy and icy,” said Tamara King, a professor of physiology at the University of New England in Maine. “There is a lot of research showing that if you increase your sedentary behaviors, you tend to get an increase in pain, especially chronic pain. And, of course, joint pain is one of those symptoms.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but regular exercise is one of the most effective strategies when it comes to treating arthritis pain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity can help adults with arthritis decrease pain and improve function by about 40 percent.

The winter blues may also be to blame for an increase in joint irritation. Some research suggests a link between seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, and chronic pain.

“We know that mood, for example, can change during different seasons, and we know that there’s certainly a relationship between mood and pain perception,” said Mahmood Gharib, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

5 tips for easing joint pain

No need to surrender to winter’s effects. Here are five things you can do to help ease osteoarthritis pain in the winter.


AARP® Vision Plans from VSP™

Exclusive vision insurance plans designed for members and their families

See more Insurance offers >

1. Don’t skip your workout. 

When it comes to joint health, the saying goes, motion is lotion. So, staying active is key.

That doesn’t mean you need to hit the treadmill and sprint. Consider strengthening and stretching programs, such as yoga, Gharib says. Or opt for a low-impact activity such as swimming. Cycling, light gardening and dancing can be helpful for people who suffer from arthritis pain, the CDC says.

“I always recommend that patients have a good warm-up and cool-down period before and after exercise for at least five minutes,” Gharib adds.

A word of caution: If you prefer to exercise outside, be mindful of snow and ice, which can increase the risk of falls, King says. “Try and find a safe environment to do the exercise,” she says. If you need clarification on which exercises are safest for you, check in with your health care provider.

The CDC recommends that older adults get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity (hiking, jogging or running count). Strength training and balance activities should also be part of your fitness plan. 

2. Bundle up.

Make sure you dress in layers to stay warm, Kheir advises. Heating pads and warmers can come in handy “and can help decrease symptoms, particularly stiffness,” he says. 

3. Manage pain with over-the-counter pain relievers.

Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help to curb joint pain. Just be sure to check with your doctor before popping any pill, since these drugs, even though sold without a prescription, can lead to serious side effects for some people. Another pain-relief option is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory cream, such as diclofenac (Voltaren).

4. Maintain a healthy weight.

Adults with arthritis can decrease pain and improve function by maintaining a healthy weight, the CDC says. This is especially the case if you get arthritis in weight-bearing joints, such as the knees. Studies have shown that for every 1 pound of body weight you lose, it takes 4 pounds of force off the knee.

5. Rest.

Taking the time to rest your joints can alleviate pain and inflammation, according to the Arthritis Foundation. So can maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. One study published in The Journal of Rheumatology found that better quality sleep was associated with reduced knee pain from osteoarthritis.​