How to prevent joint pain flare-ups from cold weather

We’re a nation that knows a thing or two about joint pain.

With around 10 million people suffering with arthritis, which can range from mild to severe, it’s one of the leading causes of disability in the UK.

But while the condition is fairly common, it is rarely understood. ‘Arthritis’ isn’t just one single disease, but actually relates to 100 different types of joint pain, which can range from a dull ache to crippling agony – and the arrival of colder, wintry weather often causes symptoms to flare up.

The good news is, there are things that can help manage – and perhaps even prevent – arthritis-related pain when the temperature drops. Here, Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan, gives us the lowdown on managing arthritis in winter.

What exactly is arthritis?

“The word arthritis literally means inflammation of a joint,” says Dr Brewer. “The most common type, osteoarthritis, involves degeneration of the articular cartilage protecting the bone ends within a joint.”

Without cartilage protection, tendons and ligaments have to work harder, and severe loss of cartilage can lead to bone rubbing on bone, causing friction and eventual swelling and inflammation.

Elbow bones injury white background (Thinkstock/PA)

Arthritis typically affects weight-bearing joints

Arthritis can also rear its ugly head when parts of a joint are wrongly identified as a ‘foreign’ threat and are attacked by immune processes – which is the case with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease – and people with fibromyalgia can also suffer from arthritis. While far more common in older age groups, anybody, even children, can get arthritis.

“Other forms of arthritis include gout,” says Dr Brewer, “septic (infective arthritis), psoriatic arthritis (associated with psoriasis) and reactive arthritis, which is where antibodies formed against an infection start to attack the joints.”

What are the symptoms?

The first sign of osteoarthritis is typically the worst one: Pain. In the early stages, this can feel like a dull ache or a burning sensation. Often, you’ll feel the pain after you’ve used the affected joint a lot, for instance, if you’ve been driving a car or walking up a flight of stairs.

Osteoarthritis usually affects the larger, weight-bearing joints, such as hips, knees and the lower back, although the neck, fingers and toes may also be affected.

Picture of a wrinkled elderly hand (Thinkstock/PA)

Arthritis can get worse over time

Rheumatoid arthritis is more likely to affect the whole body and is often associated with severe stiffness – it usually takes sufferers a long time to get their joints moving, especially in the morning – and the ‘triggers’ can be very different.

Arthritis inflammation is associated with swelling too, and can eventually lead to deformity and loss of joint function over time, says Dr Brewer.

Although the symptoms and signs can be similar for different types of arthritis, a doctor can usually assess which type you might have by looking at the number and types of joints affected, how symptom patterns have progressed, as well as the presence or absence of accompanying systemic symptoms (autoimmune conditions, for instance, tend to affect multiple parts of the body, including the eyes and internal organs and energy levels).

Is arthritis really worse in winter?

“Cold weather appears to make arthritis pain worse for many people, although the reason is poorly understood,” says Dr Brewer. “A small study involving 25 people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis found that 92% believed their symptoms were influenced by cold weather, and when their pain and stiffness scores were checked against meteorological data, there was a strong correlation.

“One possibility is that changes in musculoskeletal symptoms are related to falling vitamin D levels during winter,” she adds. “Another factor could be that pain receptors become more sensitive when surrounding temperature receptors that detect cold become more active.”

So, how can you manage winter flare-ups?

When it’s cold outside, one of the best ways to keep joints happy is to cover them up – so make sure you’re wearing thick layers and keep aching hands warm with gloves.

While it’s tempting to reach for the medicine cabinet whenever you feel a twinge of pain (although it’s always advisable to discuss your pain management needs with your GP or consultant, to ensure your symptoms are being managed in the best way possible for you), Dr Brewer says it might not necessarily be the best choice in the long run. “Oral painkillers, such as paracetamol and NSAIDs, are less used now because of [possible] long-term side effects,” she says. “Topical creams and gels that sink in to provide pain relief exactly where it’s needed are increasingly popular.”

Swimming in a heated pool can also help to soothe painful joints, and you can also find quick and easy relief from taking warm baths, according to The Arthritis Foundation. Relaxing in a steamy bubble bath just before bed can mean the difference between lying awake all night in pain or drifting off peacefully.

Woman Relaxing in Bathtub (Thinkstock/PA)

A warm bath can soothe sore joints

“A number of supplements and herbal medicines can also help reduce joint pain,” says Dr Brewer, “such as glucosamine and chondroitin, hydrolysed collagen, ginger, turmeric and krill oil. Turmeric for joint pain is best taken in the form of a solubilised liquid for maximum absorption.”

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23rd Jan 2020
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Can taking antihistamine help with arthritic joint pain?
28th Jan 2020
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I do not think so. I recently found some capsules at my local pharmacy called Collagen Complex which should hopefully help to counteract the wear and tear causing the Arthritic pain I have only been taking them for a week but I fancy my knees are easier .Best wishes.
26th Jan 2019
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I have found using filtered water has helped my joint pains,
we know use a Britax jug and added bonus the kettle does not fur up with lime scale.
16th Jan 2019
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It would be interesting if a proper survey could find out if joint problems are more prevalent in this country than say Spain or Portugal because of the different weather conditions.
19th Jan 2019
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No stats, but big problem here in spain, olive oil is the local remedy
1st Dec 2017
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I have had both hips replaced but have arthritis in both knees although neither are ready for replacement. To help in the cold I wear my lined hiking trousers and it does make a difference.
1st Dec 2017
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I thought the herbal stuff had been discredited recently? Can anyone on here say it has definitely helped them?
1st Dec 2017
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I have both knees replaced and right hip I have
1st Dec 2017
Thanks for voting!
And another possibility is that because it's cold the body restricts the blood flow to the limbs to conserve heat. Wearing sensible clothing to keep warm when outdoors or indoors has certainly helped me

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