Overcoming winter aches and pains
Joint pain can occur anytime throughout the year, but in the cold and wet months of the winter you may find it harder to cope with.
Although a change in the weather will not cause arthritis, it can worsen the symptoms, says GP and musculoskeletal expert, Dr Alasdair Wright.
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 means we lose less heat from blood circulating near the surface of the skin, but it also means the joints get less blood and, for some, this can be painful.
Dr Wright explains: ‘The soft tissues around the joints are less pliable when cold, so joints feel tight and stiff, resulting in more pain.’
Aches and pains
Although arthritis affects all ages, it is more common as we get older. According to Arthritis Care, one in five adults in the UK – 10 million ‒ has arthritis. There are many different types, but all cause pain and inflammation of the joints.
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. As we age, the cartilage that cushions our joints gradually wastes away, leading to painful rubbing of bone on bone. According to Arthritis Care, injury to a joint can also trigger osteoarthritis, even many years later.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the joints. The joints and inflamed tissues then become stiff, painful and swollen.
Some get reactive arthritis after catching a viral infection such as the flu. This usually clears up on its own, but can last for months.
Another painful condition that flares up in cold weather is Reynaud’s. This affects the fingers and toes, but it is not a problem with the joints. The blood vessels under your skin go into a temporary spasm in reaction to the cold, cutting off normal blood flow.
The most common cause of joint pain in people under 50 is injury or overuse. Most cases occur from overdoing normal, everyday activities, such as lifting heavy bags or digging in the garden, rather than doing sport.
Dr Wright advises: ‘It may be tempting to try to get a job done as quickly as possible but fast repetitive movements are more likely to lead to accident or injury – so try not to rush.’
Time to snuggle?
Although pain is unpleasant, it’s your body’s way of telling your brain that something is wrong.
Pain is a protective mechanism to stop further damage but arthritic pain doesn’t mean you should dive for the duvet and quit exercising altogether.
Remaining active is vital. Exercise will help keep your joints supple, which can reduce pain and help you stay independent.
Don’t let the cold weather put you off – wrap up warm and be careful if it’s wet or icy.
What to wear for optimum winter joint health
Wear gloves, a scarf, a hat and plenty of clothing, so you can peel layers off as you warm up.
How to exercise your joints
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.
Choose something you enjoy doing – like cycling, dancing, bowls or tai chi outdoors. There is plenty you could do indoors too. According to NHS Choices, swimming is ideal as it’s easy on the joints. Even household chores, like hovering, can be good exercise.
Whatever 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 using a step or ladder.
Most importantly, listen to your body. Dr Wright says: ‘Paying attention to pain in or around a joint can help prevent a more serious injury. If something hurts, stop and modify the way you do that activity rather than push on and risk more damage.
‘Although you may think a mild joint pain isn’t too bad it can be the next day before you feel the true effect, so don’t risk it.’
Pain isn’t just a sensation; according to Arthritis Research pain has emotional effects too – making us feel upset or distressed and tired.
Many people get a little depressed during the winter months, which can make pain feel worse. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests daily exercise can give you a good mental health as well as a good physical one. So, what are you waiting for?