This Is Why You Have More Joint Pain During the Winter

Atmospheric pressure and your mental health make winter joint pain worse.

woman holding her knee outside in winter
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You probably experience the same thing every winter: The instant those crisp fall days transform into an ice-cold winter wonderland, your joints start aching. Winter joint pain happens like clockwork. "People often complain of an increase in joint pain during the colder months or before a storm—especially if they suffer from joint conditions like arthritis, chronic pain, or injuries," says Danielle Weis, physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at Spring Forward Physical Therapy in New York.

The reasons behind winter joint pain can be tricky to identify. As Weis notes, the "studies that exist have inconclusive and even contradictory findings." That's partly because the research sometimes neglects to take "psychological factors and activity levels into account," she notes. Looking at the whole picture, however, gives a clearer idea as to why damp, cold weather has your joints aching more than usual.

There are changes in atmospheric pressure.

Winter brings about all sorts of changes in the atmosphere, and you really can feel it in your bones. "Tendons, muscles, bones, joints, and scars are all made up of tissues of various densities that expand and contract differently during times of humidity and colder temperatures," Weis says. "These effects may cause an increase in sensitivity to areas where microtrauma—found in new or old injuries—exist."

In fact, a 2019 study published in the journal PLOS One found that lower barometric pressure—which is what we experience in the winter—is associated with an increase in pain intensity and unpleasantness. And a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Medicine also showed that changes in barometric pressure and temperature affect the severity of pain among those with knee osteoarthritis.

Your joints aren't properly lubricated.

Our joints—including the hips, knees, feet, ankles, hands, and shoulders—contain synovial fluid, which "lubricates the joints and helps allow for smooth movement," Weis says. When the weather changes, so can that fluid. "Low temperatures and humidity may make this joint fluid more viscous, which can make joints more stiff, increase friction during movement, and make them more sensitive to stress," she explains.

You're more stressed, anxious, and depressed.

When you're stressed, your body becomes more tense—and that increase in tension can bring about joint pain, according to the University of Washington School of Medicine. Considering winter is the most stressful time of the year with an increase in family time (and heated dinner discussions), financial struggles, and trying to maintain work-life balance, it's no wonder anxiety flares up, and joint pain with it.

This is especially true for those with a chronic disease, like arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. And that daily pain you're experiencing is both physically and mentally draining, which can incite depression. Understandably, you can feel like you're stuck in a loop of pain that can be very hard to escape from.

What can you do about winter joint pain?

If there's one way to get relief from any joint pain you're experiencing during cold weather, it's movement. "If you're stuck in one position for long periods of time—be it sitting, lying down, or even standing—your joints will stiffen up," Weis says.

At first, movement might be a little uncomfortable or painful, but that's totally normal. It will get better with time."Take it slow. Don't jump up and get moving as fast as you can. Instead, perform some slow movements, like bending and straightening the knees and elbows, shoulder/ankle/wrist rolling, opening and closing the hands, and standing marches," Weis says. "Once your body adjusts to moving, the initial discomfort should soon improve and you can be on your way. If it doesn't improve, continue to take it slow and don't push into the pain."

You can also take more hot showers or use a heated blanket, which both help alleviate discomfort. And stretching regularly can do your joints good, too. If you stay active and limber, you and your joints will be in a better place this winter.

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