February 23, 2015

By: Kathleen A. Hogan, MD

With the arrival of cold and snow, many people head south for warmer weather. One of the many reasons older people leave New Hampshire during the winter months is that their arthritic joints feel better in a warmer climate. Certainly, avoiding snow and ice can minimize your chance of falling and breaking bones. But does warmer weather really influence the pain from arthritic joints?

First, it is important to understand how arthritis causes pain. Arthritis refers to the loss of the normal cartilage that covers the ends of the bones. Instead of two smooth surfaces gliding past each other, they are now rough. Joint fluid coats the surfaces, providing lubrication. Arthritis causes pain because of the resulting inflammation, swelling, and loss of motion. So how does changes in climate affect these sources of pain?

Ice has been shown to decrease inflammation in joints, which is why icing is a commonly recommended treatment for arthritic joints. But, even when the air temperature is cold, your body acts to keep its internal temperatures relatively constant. Joints further away from the heart (fingers/toes) may become cold, but the body temperature at the knees and hip are relatively constant despite the cold air. Warmer climates do not necessarily decrease inflammation or swelling in your joints. The few studies that have been done on this topic have not found clear correlation between musculoskeletal pain and temperature.

However, cold air temperatures can make joints and muscles feel stiff and less limber. When the weather is unpleasant, people are naturally less likely to go outside and exercise. Joints that do not move become stiffer. Stiffness causes pain. This is probably the main reason arthritis pain feels better in transitioning to a warmer climate in the middle of winter.

If you are staying in New Hampshire this winter, you can mimic some of these effects seen in the warmer climates. Wear warm, compressive clothing around your painful joints to keep them from feeling stiff. Consider using a heating pad on sore joints to help warm them up prior to activities. Do not let the cold weather keep you from being active. Activity is beneficial to arthritic joints!

When you are outdoors this winter, make sure to be wary of ice. Falls are a frequent occurrence in the winter and if your bones are osteoporotic, even a small slip can result in a broken wrist or hip. Wear sensible shoes, pay attention to where you are walking, make sure you de-ice walkways and stairs outside your home. Canes can slip on the ice and water as well. Four prong canes and walkers are slightly more steady. Be particularly careful if you have broken a bone before; prior fractures are often a sign that your bones are fragile and prone to breaking.