Joint pain can occur anytime throughout the year, but can feel worse and harder to cope with during the cold and wet winter months. Our lead physiotherapist, Jan Vickery, explains,
“A change in the weather will not cause arthritis pain, but it can make the symptoms more noticeable. When we are cold our body restricts how much blood it sends around extremities, like our hands and feet, so that it can focus on supplying vital organs, like the heart and lungs. This makes the soft tissues around the joints less pliable, so joints can feel tight, stiff and uncomfortable.”
Some common causes of winter aches and pains
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. As we age, the cartilage that cushions our joints can gradually waste away, leading to rubbing of bone on bone. This can cause biomechanical changes that result in pain. Injury that causes damage to a joint can also trigger osteoarthritis later on in life.
- Rheumatoid arthritis
This occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the joints. The joints and inflamed tissues then become stiff, painful and swollen.
- Reactive arthritis
Some people may get reactive arthritis after catching a viral infection, like the flu. This is less common and usually clears up on its own, but can last for months.
- Raynauds Phenomenon
Another condition that flares up in cold weather is Raynauds Phenomenon. The blood vessels under your skin go into a temporary spasm in reaction to the cold, cutting off normal blood flow. This is not a joint problem but it affects the fingers and toes, making them painful.
- Overuse and repetition
The most common cause of joint pain in people under 50 is injury due to overuse or repetition, high levels of force or awkward postures, especially if sustained for long periods of time. Often cases occur from overdoing normal, everyday activities, such as lifting heavy bags or digging in the garden. Jan warns, ’Repetitive movements, like digging the garden, particularly in awkward postures that involve high forces over a long period, are more likely to lead to accident or injury – so pace yourself when taking on this kind of job.’
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin as a result of UVB exposure from sunlight. It is also found in meat products, fish and eggs. Vitamin D helps keep your bones healthy, muscles functioning. It may have other benefits too, but these are still being researched. As the strength of the sunlight reaching us weakens from October to March, the government’s advice is to take 10mcg of Vitamin D per day. A low level of Vitamin D has been associated with joint and muscular pain.
Jan’s top tips for preventing aches and pains
Pain is a protective mechanism to stop you from causing further damage but pain doesn’t always mean you should dive for the duvet and quit exercising altogether.
- Remaining active is vital. Keeping moving will help keep your joints mobile and your muscles strong, which can reduce pain and help you stay independent.
- Don’t let cold weather put you off from normal physical activities and errands – wrap up warm (hat, gloves, scarf etc.) and wear appropriate footwear to prevent you from slipping if it’s wet or icy. It’s a good idea to wear layers in cold weather, so that you can peel them off as you warm up.
- If you’re new to exercise, don’t overdo it. Slowly build the amount you do. If you can't manage 30 minutes, says NHS Choices, break it up into 10-minute chunks. Make sure you warm up with a spot of fast walking or gentle jogging. According research from the Mayo Clinic, daily exercise can improve mental as well as physical health. So it’s a win-win all year round.
- Whatever you choose, remember good posture. Every activity can be done differently, so think about which positions put the least strain on your joints. For example, reaching to lift a heavy object from a high cupboard puts more strain on your shoulder than if you used a step or ladder.
- Pain isn’t just a physical sensation, it can have emotional effects too – making us feel upset and tired. Some people may also feel low during the winter the winter months (Seasonal Affective Disorder) , which can make pain feel worse. If you feel that you are not coping with pain or your mood, then reach out for help to your GP.) Talking therapies, amongst other options, can help.
For muscle, joint and bone concerns, visit our musculoskeletal hub
Focus on arthritis – AXA PPP healthcare
7 common myths about arthritis explained – AXA PPP healthcare
Arthritis – NHS factsheet
Winter warm-ups for safer exercise – AXA PPP healthcare
Depression – AXA PPP healthcare
Seasonal affective disorder – Live chat with Mark Winwood