It is a common patient complaint in the world of physio – “My joints seem to ache more in winter – is it possible?”
The answer is “Yes!”
There are a combination of reasons as to why people experience more pain during the colder winter months – especially when the temperature drops down here in Melbourne!
The cooler temperature can increase the experience of pain for many conditions, and particularly for arthritic conditions. Many of our clients relate to arthritic knees, feet, hands and necks feeling more stiff and sore during the winter months.
Research hints at several possible explanations.
Barometric (air pressure) and temperature drops affect tissue elasticity and mobility
Connective tissue properties can undergo subtle changes in elasticity and mobility with temperature and barometric drops. Cooler temperatures can affect joint capsule and ligamentous tissues, making them temporarily less supple. The increased stiffness can lead to experiences of pain in joints. So rugging-up warmly, using heat packs and staying active can counteract this.
Poor weather leading to low mood and sadness, and increased pain experiences
Recent studies on pain have demonstrated that our experience of pain is directly related to our mental state. When we are feeling sad, anxious or stressed we are more likely to perceive higher levels of pain in our bodies. When we are relaxed, supported and happy, we perceive less pain. In winter we stay indoors, get less exposure to sunlight, feel saddened by the cold, dark, wet weather, and often reduce our physical and social activities. This in turn can lower mood and lead to increased perception of pain. So making sure to get out and about, stay active and do things that make us feel good such as visiting friends are very helpful.
We move less due to bad weather
Inclement weather limits outdoor exercise participation and mobility. We cancel our weekend walks, we stay in bed longer and skip exercise classes. We don’t take a walk out of the office at lunch. We know that both healthy bodies and arthritic joints need regular movement and exercise to stay mobile and strong. Often our aches and pains in winter are our body’s way of telling us to get up and move more! So if your back is aching, get off the couch, put on a warm coat and hat, and head to the park for a walk!
Past experience of painful winters
Sometimes people experience anxiety about past pain experiences during winter. Similar to the point above about pain and mental state, the anticipation of pain is enough to sensitise the brain and neural pathways involved in pain perception, and thus increase the experience of pain. Functional MRI studies of the brain have shown that thinking about pain activates the same areas of the brain that are active when we are actually experiencing pain. So if we upsettingly recall being sore and stiff last winter, we can reasonably expect to feel sore again. This is a HUGE area of neuroscience – start with an introduction with the ABC programme Ask The Doctor: Pain
So how can I manage this pain?
Firstly, you can feel relieved that your are not imagining this – the increased pain you feel in winter is real! And you can be reassured that it is most likely due to the reasons above, rather than any new damage or injury. Phew!
Your approach to pain relief should be multimodal and holistic. Try a combination of traditional analgesia, wearing heat-retaining supports, using hot packs, swimming in heated pools/spas and even using a sauna can be relieving.
Participating in regular exercise is important – so stick to a scheduled class or partner-based activity that will make sure you get out of bed and outdoors!
Also making sure you remain socially active, see friends and family, and participate in activities that make your soul feel good are important for maintaining good mental health.