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Can the weather cause aches and pains?

DR. JOHN BAILEY

You may have heard someone say they can tell when a storm is coming because they felt achy in their joints. For many who suffer from arthritis or other inflammatory conditions, cold weather can wreak havoc on already vulnerable parts of your body. It’s common to blame joint pain flare-ups on changes in the weather, and many doctors believe people can feel more joint pain on cold, rainy days. However, the research on the connection between the two isn’t clear.

How Weather May Affect Joints

Although everyone’s pain and discomfort is unique, the following factors are commonly associated with our bodies ability to predict weather:

— Barometric pressure – or the pressure of the air – can affect joints, but so can humidity, precipitation, and temperature. Barometric pressure drops in the winter and people with joint pain, especially arthritis, may be sensitive to changes in barometric pressure because the cartilage that cushions the bones inside a joint is worn away, causing nerves in the exposed bones to pick up on changes in pressure. Additionally, when the barometric pressure drops, it’s believed that inflamed areas of our bodies (knees, hips, hands, elbows, and shoulders) swell. Swelling can irritate nerves, which results in increased pain.

Changes in barometric pressure may make your tendons, muscles, and any scar tissue expand and contract, and that can create pain in joints affected by arthritis.

— Cold temperatures cause changes in our blood flow, our body naturally wants to keep us warm. When cold weather strikes, some blood flow is rerouted from our limbs to important organs, such as our heart and lungs. This takes warmth away from our joints, which can cause discomfort. Low temperatures can also make the fluid inside joints thicker, so they feel stiffer.

–Decreased activity can cause inactive joints to get stiff and painful. Cold or inclement weather limits many of our activity levels and this lack of movement can take its toll on our bodies. Even if you’re forced indoors get creative with ways to keep active and moving.

How to Reduce Joint Pain

Even though the science isn’t clear, flare-ups when the weather turns are very real for many people with joint pain. Some people’s bodies may just be more sensitive to changes in the weather. Although it may sound like migrating to a warmer climate is the only remedy, here are a few ways to help reduce your joint pain:

–Take care of your health. Eat a balanced, nutritional diet, and stay hydrated. Shedding some extra pounds has many health benefits as well, but specifically, it can take stress off your joints.

–Take vitamins. Supplement with vitamin D or fish oil. You naturally get less vitamin D in the winter and being deficient might make your joints hurt more. Fish oil is rich in omega 3, which helps decrease inflammation.

–Stay active. Low impact activities like riding a stationary bike can increase blood flow and reduce joint stiffness. In addition to moving, stretching helps maintain your mobility and can warm up your joints for physical activity helping reduce the chance of injury.

–Use heat. Warm water can help soothe your joints, so take a dip in a heated pool or draw a hot bath. You can also use a heating pad on troubled areas, but for no more than 20 minutes at a time. When heading out in the cold, cover up. If your knees ache, try keeping them warm with a sleeve or wrap. Wear gloves to protect your hands.

–Take NSAIDs. Ask your doctor about non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin, which can reduce inflammation and pain.

–Fight cold with cold. Apply an ice pack to reduce swelling.

–Get a massage. Relax the muscles around your joints.

–Be safe. Cold weather yields icy surfaces. Protect your joints from further damage from falls by wearing sturdy shoes and walking carefully. Don’t strain your joints if you don’t have to – let someone else lift those heavy boxes.

If you have persistent joint pain that won’t subside, an orthopaedic specialist can help you determine what the pain stems from and the best way to alleviate the issues. Each case is unique, and treatment plans may include physical therapy, surgery, or various lifestyle changes.

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John Bailey, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon with UPMC in Williamsport. He received his medical degree from Penn State University School of Medicine, State College, and completed his residency at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Dr. Bailey sees patient at 1705 Warren Ave., Williamsport. To schedule an appointment, call 570-321-2020.

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