Coping with winter aches and pains
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Joint pain can occur anytime throughout the year, but can feel worse and harder to cope with during the cold and wet winter months. Our Head of Clinical Services, Jan Vickery, explains.
“A change in the weather will not cause arthritis pain, but it can make the symptoms more noticeable. When we are cold our body restricts how much blood it sends around extremities, like our hands and feet, so that it can focus on supplying vital organs, like the heart and lungs. This makes the soft tissues around the joints less pliable, so joints can feel tight, stiff and uncomfortable.”
Some common causes of winter aches and pains
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. As we age, the cartilage that cushions our joints can gradually waste away, leading to rubbing of bone on bone. This can cause biomechanical changes that result in pain. Injury that causes damage to a joint can also trigger osteoarthritis later on in life. Other symptoms of osteoarhritis to look out for include swelling, stiffness and a grating sound when you move the joint. Bony growths can also develop.
You can find out more about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of osteoarthritis in our NHS factsheet.
This occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the joints – usually in the hands, wrists and feet. The joints and inflamed tissues then become stiff, painful and swollen. People with rheumatoid arthritis may experience flare-ups, when symptoms get worse; they may also experience more general symptoms such as tiredness or weight loss. If left untreated rheumatoid arthritis can lead serious complications, including an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as joint damage, so it’s important get an early diagnosis. Find out more in our Rheumatoid arthritis NHS factsheet.
Some people may get reactive arthritis after catching a sexually transmitted infection (STI), viral infection such as the flu or food poisoning. This is less common and usually clears up on its own, but can last for months. With reactive arthritis symptoms usually affect joints in the legs – from the hips down to the toes. It can also infect the genital tract causing discharge and pain when urinating, and the eyes causing pain, redness and discharge. If vision becomes blurred you should seek immediate medical attention. Find out more about this condition in our Reactive arthritis NHS factsheet.
Raynaud’s Phenomenon (or Raynaud’s)
Another condition that flares up in cold weather is Raynauds Phenomenon, also known as Reynaud’s. This is a common condition in which the blood vessels under your skin go into a temporary spasm in reaction to the cold, cutting off normal blood flow. This is not a joint problem but it affects the fingers and toes, making them painful. Other symptoms of Raynaud’s include numbness, pins and needles and difficulty moving the affected area; your fingers and toes may also change colour. There are things you can do to help manage the symptoms of Renaud’s and also a prescription medication called nifedipine that can help with circulation. See our NHS factsheet on Raynaud’s for further information, including when you should see your GP.
Overuse and repetition
The most common cause of joint pain in people under 50 is injury due to overuse or repetition, high levels of force or awkward postures, especially if sustained for long periods of time. Often cases occur from overdoing normal, everyday activities, such as lifting heavy bags or digging in the garden. Jan warns, “repetitive movements, like digging the garden, particularly in awkward postures that involve high forces over a long period, are more likely to lead to accident or injury – so pace yourself when taking on this kind of job.”
Low levels of vitamin D
Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin as a result of UVB exposure from sunlight. It is also found in small quantities in certain foods, including liver, oily fish, eggs and wild mushrooms. It’s also added to some fortified products such as cereals, spreads, milk and milk substitutes, however it’s unlikely you could get enough from diet alone. Vitamin D is important for bone healthy and muscles function. A low level of vitamin D can result in joint and muscular pain. As the strength of the sunlight reaching us weakens from October to March, the government’s advice is to take 10mcg of Vitamin D per day. Find out more about this important vitamin and how to spot the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency in our article Do I need a vitamin D supplement?
Expert tips for dealing with aches and pains
Keep moving to prevent stiffness keep muscles strong
Pain is a protective mechanism to stop you from causing further damage but pain doesn’t always mean you should dive for the duvet and quit exercising altogether.
In fact remaining active is vital. Keeping moving will help keep your joints mobile and your muscles strong, which can reduce pain and help you stay independent.
1. Don’t let cold weather put you off normal physical activities and errands
Wrap up warm (hat, gloves, scarf etc.) and wear appropriate footwear to prevent you from slipping if it’s wet or icy. It’s a good idea to wear layers in cold weather, so that you can peel them off as you warm up.
2. If you’re new to exercise, don’t overdo it
Slowly build the amount you do. If you can’t manage 30 minutes, says NHS Choices, break it up into 10-minute chunks. Make sure you warm up with a spot of fast walking or gentle jogging. According research from the Mayo Clinic, daily exercise can improve mental as well as physical health. So it’s a win-win all year round.
3. Whatever activity you choose, remember good posture
Every activity can be done differently, so think about which positions put the least strain on your joints. For example, reaching to lift a heavy object from a high cupboard puts more strain on your shoulder than if you used a step or ladder.
4. Pain isn’t just a physical sensation, it can have emotional effects too
Pain often makes us feel upset and tired. And if stops us getting out and about it can make us feel lonely and isolated too. Some people may already feel low during the winter the winter months (Seasonal Affective Disorder), so not only can pain can exacerbate a low mood, but the reverse is true too. It’s a vicious circle so If you feel that you’re not coping – with pain or your mood – reach out to your GP.
Talking therapies, amongst other options, can help, or they may be able to offer medication to help manage your symptoms. In addition we have a lots of information and tips that can help you improve low mood in our Health and wellbeing pages.