Winter aches and pains can sometimes slow us down, but for one in five people in the U.S., those symptoms are caused by an underlying chronic disease — arthritis. According to Tristan D. Blackburn, M.D., rheumatologist, arthritis is one of the most common chronic diseases in the nation. The most common form is osteoarthritis.
“Osteoarthritis involves the loss of cartilage within the joint and increased bone formation around the joint,” Dr. Blackburn said.
The risk for osteoarthritis increases with age. While it can affect any joint in the body, it is most common in the spine, finger joints, knees, hips and big toes.
Donna Slaughter, age 64, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in the spine, concentrating in the neck area, 15 years ago. Since then, she has had both knees replaced, and the arthritis has moved into her right hand and foot. During the winter months, Slaughter experiences heightened joint aches and pains as well as a general tightening in her body.
“I get stiffer when winter settles in, and it takes me longer to move,” she said. “I typically do not stay out in the cold to prevent tightening up, but sometimes I can’t avoid it.”
While Dr. Blackburn says there isn’t a known reason for increased pain in colder or wetter weather conditions, some theories suggest changes in barometric pressure can lead to arthritis pain flare-ups. However, Dr. Blackburn is quick to point out that while arthritis patients may experience more aches and pains in winter, weather changes do not make the condition worse or cause increased joint damage.
Coping with the cold
Slaughter maintains a healthy lifestyle complete with a balanced diet and regular exercise to manage her arthritis pain during the winter months and throughout the year.
“I exercise and keep active,” she said. “I try to maintain basic good nutrition to stay healthy and use heating pads and soak in my whirlpool tub to relax my joints and body.”
Dr. Blackburn agrees that physical activity is an ideal way to manage arthritis pain.
“Aerobic exercise programs and physical therapy with range-of-motion exercises can help strengthen the muscles surrounding and supporting painful joints,” Dr. Blackburn said.
Dr. Blackburn also suggests the following remedies:
- Shoe inserts can relieve pressure in areas that are making pain in the foot, knee or hip worse.
- Braces and splints can assist with some painful joints, particularly the knee and thumb.
- Over-the-counter medications, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can reduce pain. Before starting new medications, be mindful of any underlying medical conditions that may prevent you from taking them.
- Applying heat, such as using heating pads or soaking joints in warm water, can alleviate stiffness.
- Creams and ointments containing capsaicin can help relieve pain.
Learning more about arthritis can also help with coping. Since her diagnosis, Slaughter has taken time to learn about her condition and talk with peers and physicians to discover new ways of managing it.
“I have discovered nothing gets easier as you get older,” Slaughter said. “I’ve learned I have to keep my body functioning so I can enjoy my everyday life. Some days are better than others, but how you decide to look at each day has a lot to do with how you feel.”
If you are experiencing joint pain during the winter months and suspect arthritis could be the reason, Dr. Blackburn recommends seeking the care of a physician to establish a diagnosis.
“There are many different causes of joint pain, and you want to make sure that arthritis is the cause of your pain,” Dr. Blackburn said.
While home remedies can help with managing minor arthritis symptoms, persistent or worsening pain should be treated by a physician.
“Your doctor may have some additional tools to help you continue to function and live a more comfortable, productive and happy life,” Dr. Blackburn said.
About our expert
Tristan D. Blackburn, M.D., practices at Norton Rheumatology Specialists, Norton Medical Plaza II – Suburban, Suite 300, 3991 Dutchmans Lane, Louisville, KY 40207; (502) 899-6061