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Monday Medical: Arthritis and cold weather

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If you suffer from arthritis, it’s probably no surprise that cold weather can make it worse. But why does this happen? And what can you do about?

Dr. Nicole Cotter, a rheumatologist with UCHealth Rheumatology Clinic in Steamboat Springs, answers those questions and more below.

Arthritis explained

“Arthritis, by definition, is inflammation of the joints,” Cotter said. “But there are probably more than a hundred different kinds of arthritis.”



One main type is osteoarthritis, in which wear and tear breaks down the cartilage that cushions a joint, resulting in pain.

There are also various types of arthritis that are caused by abnormalities in the immune system. Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, often strikes when someone is in their 30s or 40s.



“There’s a misconception that arthritis is just a natural part of getting old,” Cotter said. “So many people come into my office and say, ‘I’m too young to be here,’ but unfortunately, they’re the perfect age to be there because of the type of arthritis they have.”

If you experience joint stiffness and pain, see your health care provider. Early treatment can result in better long-term outcomes, and various treatments can help reduce pain.

“Listen to your body,” Cotter said. “If you think that something’s not right, something’s probably not right.”

The cold factor

“Most of the time when people have arthritis, cold weather makes them feel worse,” Cotter said. “There are a lot of different theories as to why.”

Cold weather is often preceded by a drop in barometric pressure, which can cause tissues to expand and pain to increase.

When temperatures drop, the fluid in the joint actually becomes thicker, which could worsen pain.

People also tend to be less active in cold weather, and joint pain is typically worse when people are more sedentary.

“It’s actually not an old wives’ tale that people with arthritis know when they weather’s going to change,” Cotter said. “It’s not clear why, but certainly, cold weather makes arthritis worse.”

Preventing pain

Cotter recommends three strategies to help decrease arthritis pain due to cold weather — stay active, stay warm and stay healthy.

Staying active helps you increase blood flow and reduce stiffness.

“For most people with arthritis when they wake up first thing in the morning or get up after being in a car, they feel stiff,” Cotter said. “By staying active, you help combat that stiffness.”

It’s also important to keep your body warm. “Simply staying warm helps,” Cotter said. “When your joints are warmer, there’s more blood flow to the joint and muscles are more relaxed.”

Keep your home warm, use a heating blanket and wear appropriate clothing, including layers, gloves and warm socks. People with arthritis in their hands may find that paraffin wax treatments bring relief.

And you do your best to stay healthy. By getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, maintaining an optimal level of vitamin D and getting a flu shot, you will support your immune system, which in turn can help decrease pain.

Remember to be careful on the snow and ice.

“If people have arthritis, their balance might not be optimal as joint pain here and there can affect your gait,” Cotter said. “The last thing we want is for somebody to fall on the ice, so just be cognizant of that.”

The good news is that by staying active, warm and healthy, you can make a difference in your pain level in cold weather.

“Lifestyle modifications can help to manage those symptoms in a cold environment,” Cotter said.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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