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.
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.