We all have that friend or family member who claims to be able to predict a cold front or sudden changes in weather conditions based on how his or her knee feels.
And while it might sound like Uncle Joe is full of fluff, pain in the joints caused by cold weather is not an urban myth (rain, on the other hand, is a different story). It’s real, and it significantly impacts the lives of people who experience it.
This particularly intriguing topic has been the focus of numerous studies, yet concrete evidence that scientifically proves why winter joint pain occurs is still inconclusive. However, one thing all these studies have in common is that low-level joint pain usually strikes arthritis sufferers much harder than those with healthy joints.
Read more: Ew, Why Are My Joints Cracking and Popping?
Nerves May Be to Blame
So what’s really going on here? There are a few theories. One study from the Annals of Rheumatic Disease suggests winter joint pain is connected to the misbehavior of the nerves. Even though this theory is supported by more evidence than other equally relevant theories, it’s still not accepted as the primary reason for joint pain in winter.
During the colder months, the pain signals, which are carried to the brain by the sympathetic nerves, are more intense. This occurs because the role of these nerves is to maintain the body’s internal functions with minimal heat loss, which is especially important in winter.
For this reason, when the weather gets cold, these nerves compress the blood vessels in the limbs and send more blood to the core of the body in order to keep the internal vital organs warm. In such conditions, the joints in our body, especially the knees and the hips, become colder and stiffer, which causes discomfort, stiffness and pain.
Barometric Pressure Also Affects Joints
In case you don’t remember from middle school science class, barometric pressure is the amount of pressure that the atmosphere puts on our bodies. When the barometric pressure changes, it impacts our internal blood pressure as well as the gases and fluids in our joints, which can cause discomfort, swelling and pain. Usually, this occurs when the barometric pressure drops, which typically happens during the cold winter months.
Several studies suggest that even a small decrease in the external pressure on our bodies can cause the internal blood pressure to rise intensely. Due to changes in blood circulation and nerve fiber sensitivity, this change in barometric pressure can be experienced as an inflammation of the joints and can lead to joint stiffness and pain.
However, there’s a lack of solid evidence that can confirm or rule out this theory as a significant factor for joint pain during winter. And although many people also claim that rain makes their joints hurt more, a 2017 Harvard review found otherwise.
Take Better Care of Your Joints This Winter
Until science agrees on the common cause of this phenomenon, there are things everyone can do to prevent stiffness and pain in their joints.
To start, it’s important to keep yourself warm to prevent your joints from getting stiff. If you’re going to be outside, make sure that you keep your body moving and that you wear thermal, comfortable clothes. And don't forget to keep up with regular exercise.
If you’re taking your workout outside, warming up the body prior to exercise is especially important during winter. Dynamic stretching (stretches that involve movement) is an excellent way to maintain the body’s flexibility and elasticity and prevent simple workout stiffness from turning into an injury.
A cooldown session after exercising is also important. Cooling down should include static stretching (stretches that are held without moving) because it can be tremendously helpful for decreasing muscle tightness and preventing joint pain after exercising.
In the long run, if the pain doesn’t subside even though you’ve taken all the preventative measures, you should talk to an orthopedic doctor. Any pain in the body is a warning sign, and you should definitely take heed. Consistent pain can be the result of an injury or a sign of arthritis, and the earlier a doctor examines it, the more you can do about it.
Remember: Your body is constantly telling you what it needs. Learn how to read the signs, and you won’t have a problem coping with the cold and wet winter months.
Read more: Why We Need Pain and How to Deal With It
About the Author
Armin Tehrany, M.D., is a top orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care. He specializes in minimally invasive surgery of the shoulder and knee and can speak to a wide range of sports medicine topics, including injuries to muscles, bones, nerves and ligaments. Dr. Tehrany believes that treatment of various conditions in the body should include both traditional allopathic and nonallopathic methods, ranging from conservative management to surgical intervention.