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December 09, 2019

Winter often brings achy joints – but it's unclear why

Changes in barometric pressure may have an impact

Wellness Joints
Woman running in winter weather Thom Carroll/

Have you ever wondered why your joints get stiff and achy as soon as the temperature drops?

Many people report experiencing this phenomenon. Yet, researchers have not been able to gain a clear understanding of why this might happen. 

"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," Danielle Weiss, a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at Spring Forward Physical Therapy in New York told Microsoft News.

Changes in barometric pressure is one possible cause for this increased discomfort and pain. 

"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," Weiss said. "These effects may cause an increase in sensitivity to areas where microtrauma – found in new or old injuries – exist."

One 2019 study, published in the journal PLoS One, found that lower barometric pressure is associated with an increase in pain intensity.

But other research points to blood vessel constriction as the culprit. 

"The research suggests that in colder weather, the body will conserve heat, and it will send more of the blood to the organs in the center of the body, like the heart or the lungs," Dr. Armin Tehran, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care, told SELF. "So when that happens, the arms, legs, shoulders, knee joints, those blood vessels will constrict." 

That, he said, makes joints colder and more stiff.

Whatever the cause, it is important to prevent joint pain from leading to an injury. 

When being physically active, warm up for at least five minutes and cool down properly afterward by gradually reducing the speed and intensity of your workout. Then do some stretching exercises. If you are exercising outside, dress warmly to keep your joints and muscles warm. 

Staying active and keeping your joints limber is essential to avoiding joint pain – even if you're not a fan of the gym or daily runs. Try setting up a home gym with a stationary bike or treadmill, or using light weights or resistance bands.

Remaining active is especially important for people with arthritis. A mostly sedentary lifestyle will make joints feel stiffer and more painful. 

"In the end, it doesn't matter whether you do it indoors or outdoors – just keep moving," according to Dr. Scott Burg, of the Cleveland Clinic. "Don't use winter as an excuse to stay still, or your symptoms may get worse."

If joint pain persists, make an appointment to see your doctor to check to see if you have become injured or if a chronic condition has worsened.

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