Do you dread the winter because you know your arthritis is going to act up? If so – you’re not alone. There’s a very good reason arthritis sufferers love to fly south when the cold weather sets in.
But why does this happen?
The science is a bit inconclusive on this. Some studies have completely debunked the myth that weather can affect your joint pain, while others have shown that arthritis sufferers do indeed have what we call “weather sensitivity” – where you feel worse in the cold, especially when it’s about to rain or snow. The working theory behind this is related to barometric pressure. As a storm system develops, barometric pressure (atmospheric pressure) begins to drop. Some scientists believe that this results in expansion and contraction of tissue in and around your joints (tendons, muscles, bones, and even scar tissue). If those tissues are already inflamed and sensitive due to arthritis, this could irritate them further. Additionally, the lower temperatures of winter are thought to increase the thickness of fluid inside your joints, making them stiffer and perhaps more sensitive to pain during movement.
Is there anything you can do about this? The good news is yes. Regardless of whether you think arthritis feeling worse in winter is myth or fact – there are things you can do to minimize the arthritic pain you experience in your joints.
One of the reasons arthritic joints feel so painful is because they get inflamed. If you can figure out how to ease the inflammation – there’s a good chance you can make your arthritis feel better. There are a few different ways to do this. You can use drugs or do it naturally. I prefer natural methods whenever possible, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet is one of the easiest ways you can do this. Focus on fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains. And limit foods containing unhealthy fats (like red meat, butter and egg yolks) as well as refined sugars and carbohydrates. You can also incorporate more herbs and spices into your meals. Basil, dill, oregano, rosemary, thyme, black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, turmeric, and anise are some of the most potent anti-inflammatory herbs. So during winter, make yourself a nice hot herbal tea to not only warm up and feel cozy, but to help your arthritis as well.
Another natural way to keep joint inflammation at bay is to focus on your mobility and strength. Inflamed joints don’t like to be compressed or irritated, so the natural inclination is to rest and decrease your activity level. People assume that if they take the weight off their joints, or move less, it will “protect” their joints. That’s actually not true. What protects your joints is strength and flexibility. The more mobile you are, the less likely your joints will get irritated, even arthritic ones. Have you ever worn a piece of clothing that’s too tight? Your skin gets irritated. Same with your joints. If they aren’t free to move, they get angry. The muscles around your joints also need to be strong to help keep your joints stay stable. In the absence of strength and stability, the structures around your joints will often compensate by contracting, making your joints stiff and tighter in an attempt to create “false” stability. But arthritic joints don’t want to be stiff and tight, they want to be free and mobile. So if you suffer from arthritis, it’s critical that you maintain good mobility and strength to help minimize the painful, stiff feeling of arthritis – especially during winter – when we tend to be less active in general.
Lastly, one of the best things you can do for arthritis is to exercise regularly and keep moving. Movement gets blood flowing, which helps decrease inflammation. Walking is probably the easiest and most practical way to get regular, healthy movement in, as is biking and swimming. But I can understand why you might not want to do these activities in the cold winter months – another contributing factor to your arthritis feeling worse in winter. Instead, make an extra effort to exercise indoors.
Activities like Yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi are particularly great choices for arthritis sufferers because these activities tend to be less compressive on your joints, and they incorporate full body movements that help to promote good mobility. Added bonus, they all help to work on balance and improve your core strength – which certainly can’t hurt you – and can be critical in helping you avoid a nasty winter spill.
Take home points – eat well, keep strong and mobile, and exercise regularly. These are good habits to help with arthritis all the time, but especially in winter. We may not be able to control the weather, but at least now you have a few different ways to help control your arthritis.
Dr. Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth, and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch – or get any of her free resources for back, knee, neck or shoulder pain – email her at [email protected] or call 603-380-7902
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