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Pain rises when the temperature drops

You probably have a friend or relative who claims they can sense changes in the weather depending on the aches and pains in their joints. But, in many cases, that isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. 

“Many runners and people with arthritis or pre-existing injuries notice an uptick in joint pain during the colder months,” says Dr. Craig Fultz, orthopaedic surgeon. “There are several theories as to why that is, though there hasn’t been enough concrete research to prove one over the others.”

Here are three theories that explore the possible reasons joint pain increases when the temperature drops, and what you can do to prevent the ache. 

Barometric pressure 
As storms roll in and out, there are big changes in barometric pressure, which is the pressure exerted by our atmosphere. According to one popular theory, as barometric pressure decreases for an incoming storm, tissue expands, which puts pressure on nerves and pain receptors. 

The added pressure created by that change in the atmosphere may make symptoms of arthritis and other common joint issues more noticeable.

“Arthritis patients may want to speak to their doctor about physical therapy or medicinal options during the colder months when symptoms flare up,” explains Dr. Fultz.

Although nothing can counteract the pressure in the atmosphere, wearing loose layers while outdoors will keep you comfortable and warm, which may decrease the impact of weather-related pain. Your doctor may also suggest an exercise program tailored to your specific needs to help provide pain relief.

Decreased blood flow
Our bodies are programmed to protect our vital organs by any means necessary. This explains why we suddenly experience cravings when we’re on a diet. But when it’s cold out, your body responds by using various reflexes that increase heart rate to provide some heat by shivering.

Much of the heat created is redirected to our organs through increased blood flow to provide a protective barrier. But on the other hand, our muscles and tissue will receive less circulation and might begin to contract or tighten.

“Contraction in the muscles and tissue has the same stiffening effect as a sedentary lifestyle,” says Dr. Fultz. “Your joints won’t move as freely, and you might experience pain trying to force them.” 

To prevent this involuntary change in circulation, you should be sure to dress warm and protect all your extremities. Staying active also helps.

Tight muscles 
We tend to lose track of our exercise plan and move less during the colder months, which might be a cause for cold-weather joint pain. 

“Our muscles provide support for the joints,” explains Dr. Fultz. “If those muscles become tired and stiff from lack of use during the cold and snowy months, it alters the mechanics of the joint and you lose some of that protection and notice more friction.”

Stretching regularly and staying active, even if that means taking a brisk walk around the mall or using the stairs at the office, will help keep those muscles limber and provide optimal mechanics and protection for your joints. 

“If you decide to exercise outside or go for a run, remember to perform an active warm-up to prepare your muscles and joints for activity,” notes Dr. Fultz. “Stretching while outside may cause damage, but starting with a slow jog or a warm-up activity to get the blood pumping before a long run will get your body adjusted and lessen the chance of injury or joint pain.” 

Are you living with pain? Geisinger is home to more orthopaedic and sports medicine specialists than any other program in the area, and we’re close to home. Our specialists treat a full spectrum of bone, joint and muscle problems, helping you to stay active and reclaim your life from pain or injury.

Craig Fultz, MD, is a Geisinger orthopaedic surgeon specializing in treating hip and knee pain.
Elderly woman bundled up in the snow to stay warm and help prevent joint pain.

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