Expert advice: how to ease your arthritis in cold weather

As winter weather starts to bite, read advice from GP and arthritis expert Dr Fiona Chikusu on how to ease arthritis pain when it’s cold outside.

Is it arthritis or joint pain? 

If you are not sure if you have arthritis,  look at the pattern of symptoms and whether you suffer from more chronic pain in winter. If you feel pain or stiffness that’s due to the cold, it will usually ease up once you warm up or do any activity.  However, if you have a joint ache that lasts for more than two weeks or your pain isn’t responding to simple painkillers, then it’s important to see a GP and get it checked. Arthritis could be a possibility. 

What are the types of arthritis? 

Osteoarthritis (the 'wear and tear' form of arthritis) 

Osteoarthritis and types of inflammatory arthritis are most common in people over the age of 60. It tends to affect people who don’t live an active lifestyle or who are overweight first. This is because weight puts extra strain on joints and will wear them away quicker. People who are on long term steroids are also  they’re more likely to develop arthritis due to the medication. However, as it is caused by wear and tear older people are unlikely to avoid osteoarthritis completely..

Inflammatory arthritis including rheumatoid arthritis

Inflammatory arthritis happens when you get inflammation or a build up of fluid in the joint. Types of inflammatory arthritis are quite numerous, but the most common one that people are aware of is rheumatoid arthritis. For people with inflammatory arthritis, there tends to be a family history. So, if your mum  or your nan has had inflammatory arthritis, and you’re getting joint aches then it’s worth seeing your G.P so that they can test fort hereditary arthritis.

Does cold weather affect arthritis? 

People tend to get arthritis flare-ups in the winter, but the reason why is not  known although there are many theories.

Atmospheric pressure 

One theory is that in the winter, the cold weather increases the pressure on the joints, resulting in pain. There has been a suggestion  that the barometric measure can be an indicator of arthritis flare-ups. If the atmospheric pressure drops and temperature becomes colder, then the pressure inside people’s joints that pushes on the nerves, either increases or decreases.

Lack of  vitamin D

Another theory is to do with vitamin D levels which are reduced in winter. The idea is that low vitamin D levels can trigger arthritis. It can be worth taking a vitamin D supplement  in the colder months.

We feel more pain

The final theory considers the pain receptors and their responses to cold. When the temperature drops, it can make people’s pain receptors a lot more sensitive, and because of this, they will feel more significant arthritis pain.

Where is arthritis pain most common when it’s cold? 

Knees, hands and feet are the most common places that people living with arthritis will feel it when it’s cold. During winter, people with arthritis are more likely to feel it on the periphery, and away from the core. To llessen the effects of arthritis, it’s key to keep active and have a balanced, nutritious diet.  Again, vitamin D levels can affect arthritis, so it’s worth getting your levels checked by your GP. Being on vitamin D supplements, or increasing your diet amount of vitamin D in the winter will also help. Alongside vitamin D, calcium is essential as well.

Why staying active is important 

If you exercise regularly, you’ll notice a difference when you’re less active in the winter. It’s important to stay active because, without activity, you’ll get stiffness.  And unfortunately, with stiffness often comes more discomfort.

With arthritis, in general, you should avoid any high impact exercises. Do things with low impacts, such as swimming, yoga and tai chi. Make sure to stay warm before going outside or doing training in the winter, and as with all seasons, it’s important to do a warm up to prepare your joints. I tell my patients that they know their bodies. They can tell what they can and can’t do.

Stay warm 

A quick and cost-effective way to make arthritis feel better in the winter is to wear lots of layers and loose layers that will help to trap body heat. Wrap up with gloves, scarves, hats and warm socks. Also, hand warmers tend to be helpful for anyone who has arthritis in their hands. Some people find that massaging lotion or oil into the joints can help too. If you’re at home, a warm bath can also be good.

Additionally, there’s been recent talk about TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines that are an electronic method of pain relief. It has received both good and bad feedback from people with arthritis. It’s something that could be worth trying, however, and it would help more in the winter. 

Don’t let age affect your treatment 

People over 60 years old should never think that something is impossible or that everything is down to old age. That’s not the case; it’s not old age. I know people in their 80s who have a higher fitness level than myself!

Be open and speak to GPs, the Versus Arthritis council or even family or a friend; and having that discussion is important. My advice is to start having those chats. 

There are many options to treat arthritis today and it doesn’t mean that you’ll need a joint replacement operation. 

Hopefully, this article will make anyone who has reservations about addressing arthritis aware that there are different options available.

Friend or family with arthritis?  Make you home more comfortable

For family or friends of someone with arthritis, accessibility is essential.

If the seats in your home are quite low, then add extra support with cushions. You can also buy toilet seat covers with added height, as they tend to be low. When possible, avoid too many steps. 

Make sure to remember that your loved one may also not be able to open certain tins or bottles. Small gestures such as opening a bottle or can before giving it to them can make all the difference. 

In the GP setting, we’ll get someone with arthritis linked up with an occupational therapist who would look at all those things in the household, for example, changing how your taps can open to make life easier. You can also find accommodation that can provide this.

Find social activities to give you a boost

Visiting the theatre is a great way to get outside with friends and once you’re inside the building, you’ll be able to watch a performance with family or friends in a warm, comfortable environment. Joining a book club is a good sociable indoor activity, while bird watching is an excellent way to experience the outdoors and rest when your joints begin to ache. 

Versus Arthritis offer support groups across the UK where people living with arthritis get the opportunity to share their experiences, socialise and enjoy activities such as tai chi and chair-based yoga.  

When it’s cold outside, finding ways to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis can make a huge difference to your lifestyle. No matter your age, lifestyle or situation, a key message is to stay active, use your joints more to ensure that they’re not stiff and are more flexible. Trying to maintain a healthy weight will also make a difference.

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