As a practicing physical therapist for many years, I have been faced with the common complaints among my senior (and many non senior!) patients EVERY winter about joint pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility. Now that I have entered the lovely 5th decade of life myself, I can attest to these complaints!
Patients come to see me in frustration, looking for answers and remedies. As a PT and a firm believer in exercise and movement, I always guide people through a modified exercise program to help get them through the all too often long and brutally cold season.
The question always comes up, "Why am I in so much pain in the winter??" The answers below are based on the most widely accepted explanations available by science and medical experts today. I've outlined these explanations, along with some valuable suggestions to help minimize cold weather joint pain and stiffness, while still enjoying the beauty and fun of winter, AND staying fit through it all!
1. When the temperature drops, the body conserves heat, sending more blood to the vital organs, such as the heart and lungs. This makes sense and we certainly can’t argue with the benefits!! Unfortunately, our extremities pay the price. The blood vessels of the arms and legs constrict due to decreased oxygen rich blood supply, resulting in cold, stiff muscles and joints. This can lead to pain, decreased mobility, and even injury.
2. The second explanation is weather related. That's right, our joints really DO speak to us in winter as we age. There is a consensus that cold weather causes a barometric pressure change in the atmosphere, affecting our joints. When there is a shift back and forth between high pressure and low pressure systems, there is an inflammatory response in our joints, especially for those who are already sensitive due to arthritis. This response leads to increased joint pain caused by changes in circulation and possible nerve fiber sensitivity. The result is stiff, achy joints and decreased mobility.
3. The culmination of these two theories, along with shorter and darker days, results in an overall decrease of exercise and activity, increased propensity toward weight gain, and decreased muscle and joint fitness. Throw in the steady flow of holidays from Halloween through the Super Bowl, and we have a recipe for fitness disaster!
The good news is that over the past several years, health care and fitness experts across the board have started to educate and guide clients through a healthier and more active winter season, thus combating the negative effects of winter.
So how do we manage all of this and avoid the dreaded pitfalls that come with winter??
1. KEEP MOVING!!
Exercise improves synovial fluid production in our joints, keeping them well lubricated and feeling good. A good workout also releases our body’s natural endorphins, or “feel good” hormones, which act as a natural pain reliever AND mood booster! Be sure to warm up and cool down with EVERY workout routine, to avoid unwanted injury.
2. STAY WARM
Always dress for warmth when going outside. Whether it is just a short trip to the gym, the store, etc.….or if you are going outside for a winter workout, remember to keep your body warm! Don’t forget the hat, the gloves, and the warm foot gear, where body heat escapes the quickest when outdoors.
3. EAT AN ANTI INFLAMMATORY DIET
Diet plays a tremendous role in our overall health, and choosing an anti-inflammatory diet will help combat the negative effects of arthritis and joint pain/stiffness. The proper super foods are rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and are beneficial to your bones. Follow www.eatfitlive.com to learn best how to eat healthy throughout the year!
4. STAY HYDRATED
I cannot stress this enough! In winter we may feel less inclined to reach for a cold glass of water, but staying hydrated is extremely important. Water helps to keep our system balanced, our joints lubricated, and our bodies moving well.
5. GET PLENTY OF VITAMIN D
Vitamin D levels tend to decrease in winter when we have less natural exposure to the sun. Research shows that being deficient in Vitamin D can result in increased arthritis pain. Get yours checked at your next MD appointment and take supplements to boost your levels during winter if necessary.
6. GET WARM
Warm water activities such as swimming in a heated pool is a great way to get exercise AND keep the joints extra warm and flexible. Epsom salt baths, warm showers and saunas will also add some warmth to your body during winter. AND they feel great.
7. MANAGE YOUR WEIGHT
This is the least favorite and possibly the most difficult to take care of during winter. But it may also be one of the most important. Losing a single pound of body weight relieves four pounds of pressure from your knees. It is good for your joints, your heart, your lungs, and your overall mood. The good news is that if you follow the tips above, the weight loss will often manage itself.
8. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS.....
Sometimes medical conditions or advanced arthritis will interfere with even our best efforts to manage winter aches and pains. A visit to your doctor or physical therapist should be considered if you feel like regardless of your efforts, your pain continues to interfere with your quality of life. Never hesitate to reach out to your health care providers for questions, guidance, and in some cases treatments that will help you to manage your symptoms better. The ultimate goal is always to enjoy and LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST, never compromising on the things that bring you joy and satisfaction!