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Arthritis Pain Relief for Winter Weather

Arthritis Pain Relief for Winter Weather

Many people with arthritis swear by the pain in their joints as a predictor of rainy or cold weather. “I used to hear people complain all the time that they knew rain was coming from the aching in their knees,” says Pam Snow, 49, of Atlanta, who has arthritis. “And now I’m one of those people!”

Snow has osteoarthritis in both knees. She typically manages her pain with exercise, diet, weight loss, and the occasional over-the-counter pain relief, but when winter sets in, Snow faces an extra weather-related joint pain challenge. “I think it’s related to barometric pressure,” Snow says. “It definitely has made me more cognizant of the weather.”

There is very little scientific evidence to support Snow’s experience or that of the many arthritis patients who feel worse when the weather is frightful. “In terms of really trying to scientifically study it, [research] is rather sparse and contradictory,” says rheumatologist Bonita S. Libman, MD, an associate professor of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “A lot of people do feel that weather affects their symptoms.”


In fact, she says there may be some truth to the old wives’ tale that aching joints indicate a change in weather. According to some old studies Dr. Libman heard about, people in barometric pressure chambers found that the lower the pressure, the more aches and pains they felt.

Though there’s not much scientific data to support the joint pain and weather connection, you can still use these arthritis pain relief tips when your aching joints act up in winter:

  • Dress warmly. If it’s cold outside, keep yourself warm with gloves over hands that ache and added layers over knees and legs. “I’m one of those people who loves to wear dresses and skirts,” says Snow, “so when it’s cold I also wear tights or leggings to stay warm.”
  • Exercise inside. A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health that measured physical activity in 241 adults with arthritis living in Chicago (a city known for its bitterly cold winters) found that the amount of sedentary time increased by over three hours between November and June. But while it's understandable to want to avoid winter chill, people with joint pain should still stay active — and the best way is with an indoor exercise plan. Snow has a treadmill and an elliptical trainer at home. Libman recommends walking the mall.
  • Enjoy warm water. Swimming in a heated pool is both great exercise and soothing to joints. You can also get relief from warm baths. Just don’t go right out into the cold after your soak. Let your body temperature normalize a bit first.
  • Supplement vitamin D. Being deficient in vitamin D might make osteoarthritis worse, warns Libman. You are less likely to get enough vitamin D in the winter, so this is a good time to take a supplement or make sure your diet is vitamin D-rich.
  • Stay safe. Particularly when the weather turns icy, people with arthritis need to protect their joints from further damage. If you’re going outside, pick solid, supportive shoes with good treads and try to walk on a surface that doesn’t look icy, advises Libman.
  • Try a glucosamine-chondroitin supplement. Although there are no herbal supplements that have been proven to provide arthritis pain relief in clinical studies, Libman says some of her patients do report relief from these supplements. “What I tell my patients is, if you can afford to pay for it and you want to give it a try, it seems to be a low-risk thing for pain,” she says.
  • Add fish oil. “Omega-3 fatty acids do have some benefit because they seem to reduce the level of inflammation,” says Libman. You need about 2,000 to 3,000 milligrams a day to get benefits. Make sure to let your doctor know if you try omega-3s, as they can increase the risk of bruising or bleeding.
  • Take NSAIDs. Even if, like Snow, you prefer to treat your joint pain with lifestyle changes rather than medication, it’s okay to take an over-the-counter pain reliever when your joint pain is worse due to the weather.
  • Get a massage. Yes, you have permission to indulge yourself. “A lot of what’s happening in terms of pain is, some is emanating from the joint and some from the muscles around the joint,” explains Libman. Massage can help ease those cramped muscles.
  • Go under the needle. Acupuncture is another option for those willing to consider non-traditional treatments. “It does seem patients derive some benefit with regard to pain,” says Libman. You may need several sessions to get the joint pain relief you seek. 

So when your joints start to warn you of miserable weather ahead, plan a toasty warm schedule of indoor exercise, cozy clothing, and treats such as massage to get through the oncoming cold spell.

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