Is Cold Weather Bad For Osteoarthritis?

It can be a lot fun during winter – moving around breathing crisp air, wrapping up in thick scarves and coats, and sipping hot chocolate. But many people who suffer from osteoarthritis believe firmly that their condition is worsened during cold weather. Is it really true that cold weather can worsen the symptoms of osteoarthritis? And if so, why?

mature couple outdoors in the cold

The topic has been widely researched but the results are mixed. As pain specialist Dr. Michael Vagg, puts it - there are some studies that suggest a relationship between cold and osteoarthritis, and others that do not. Here are some of the theories that have been explored:

The Pressure Factor

One factor that has been suggested and could be the reason why cold weather worsens symptoms of osteoarthritis is barometric pressure (the force that is exerted by the weight of the atmosphere).

According to some researchers, a drop in barometric pressure during cold and damper climate could cause tissues in joints to swell, thus putting more pressure on nerves that are responsible for the control of pain signals. If you drive to the top of a tall mountain, where the barometric pressure is extremely low –– you would probably experience some joint soreness. Most of the time we tend to ignore minor variations that are caused by barometric pressure while at normal altitude (variations which could be similar in scale to the ones that come with changes in weather) which are normally painful.

Misbehaving Nerves

There is an alternative idea that suggests bodily changes triggered by cooler climates could be the ones that amplify pain signals from joints. One potential explanation to this scenario is that they contain a misbehaving nervous system in which their pain signals travel along nerves right from their joints and they get amplified in the brain by some signals carried on separate nerves known as sympathetic nerves.

The body’s system depends on these sympathetic nerves as part of the mechanism that maintains the internal functioning of the body.
When the climate changes to cold, these nerves cause the blood vessels to constrict in the limbs in a sort of ‘fleecing’ intended to minimize the loss of heat and protect core organs. Increased activation of this process might have a negative reaction to osteoarthritis sufferers by triggering pain.

Self Perception

Most people experience a drop in their mood during cold weather, and this may be linked to an actual or perceived increase in physical pain.
There is a deeper explanation of why it might just be perceived – our brains may be predicting unhappiness during the winter season and reacting to what it ‘expects’. It means we are more inclined to recall those moments of the season when our pain got worse. This feeling could override our motivation to care for our joints through exercise, eating right and taking a supplement. Another problem with not exercising as much during cold periods is that it lessens the flow of nutrients and oxygen to joints which could trigger joint symptoms.

Vitamin D Deficiency

There is also more vitamin D insufficiency during the shorter days of winter. It’s been shown that men with vitamin D deficiency are twice as likely to have osteoarthritis as men with normal vitamin D levels. Pain may also be greater because vitamin D deficiency causes increased sensitivity of nerves and muscles. It’s been shown that low vitamin D levels are associated with more aches and pains in general. Other nutrients are also lower during Winter months such as vitamin K and vitamin C that are also associated with lower rates of arthritis and inflammation.

It makes good sense to take nutritional supplements if you suffer from more aches and pains during Winter. However, the Institute for Better Bone Health also has a Joint Formula supplement that acts directly on the joints to help support healthy joints year round.
So, before you pack your bags and move to a warmer climate, see if you can’t take extra effort to care for your joints during all types of weather– you might just start building new memories of how your joints feel.

Sources:

1. Seasonal variation] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4030736/pdf/2251-6581-13-52.pdf
2. [Association between nonspecific skeletal pain and vitamin D deficiency.] Heidari B, et.al. Int J Rheum Dis. 2010; 13(4):340-6.
3.“There was a significantly positive association between 25-(OH)D deficiency and skeletal pain (OR = 2.94, 95% CI = 1.01-4.3, P = 0.0001[“Vitamin D deficiency promotes skeletal muscle hypersensitivity and sensory hyperinnervation”] - Tague SE, J.Neurosci 2011;31(39):13728-38

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