Updated: Aug 4, 2020
February 23rd, 2020
The cold weather is hanging around longer than usual here in New Mexico. Winter is still warring on, and my joints are on the front line bearing the brunt of it. But does cold weather really make inflammatory arthritis symptoms worse?
The scientific evidence out there is anything but certain. The Arthritis National Research Foundation has a brief article summarizing research from the past decade with results that are here, there, and everywhere. In a Harvard Health Blog article, Dr. Shmerling implores us to “give more credence to evidence than folklore,” citing a 2014 study from Australia that found no link between weather and back pain.
What do I believe? More importantly, what do I feel? I don’t have to turn to studies to give credence to the instigators of my pain. Lately, my joint pain arrives in the evenings as the temperature drops, after my work days are spent in an office that could substitute as an icebox, after being wind-battered during short walks outside with the dogs, and while I’m relaxing in my high-ceilinged living room that resists my every attempt to hold in the warmth. To me, it’s no mere coincidence that I experience more joint pain during the winter months.
My Cold-Weather Symptoms
I admit, sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what instigates each uptick in pain and inflammation from my Ankylosing Spondylitis. On the mornings I wake up with widespread pain and full-body fatigue, indicating my body has entered into full-fledged flare mode, it’s unlikely I’ll find one environmental cause. Cold weather (or drop in barometric pressure) doesn’t cause my flares, but it does increase my joint pain.
During an unusually cold spell in the New Mexico winter, here’s what I do feel:
> Increased throbbing in the joints of my hands and feet
> Increased stiffness in my hips and knees, especially after walking outside in the cold
> More frequent eye pain and light sensitivity (uveitis)
Unfortunately for my joints, the cold winter weather will keep coming around. But here’s some of the tricks I’ve learned to reduce the pain both at home and on the trail!
Cold-Weather Joint Pain Remedies for Home
Sure, it’s easy enough to turn up the heat or wrap up in an extra blanket to stay warm at home. Sometimes we need more creative solutions, or solutions that don’t involve a ginormous heating bill! Here’s three tricks I’ve learned to help soothe winter joint pain:
1. Do Some Cooking and Baking
Cooking and/or baking is an effective way to battle the cold weather because the task not only gets your body moving, but it also gets your body moving around heating elements. While this technique is useful and comes with an added bonus (a tasty meal or treat), there’s also a drawback. If you’re like me and suffer joint pain in your hands, then cooking or baking might simply exacerbate that pain. My hand often swells after gripping a mixing spoon or using a knife to prep a meal.
2. Use Warm Water to Soothe Joints
One of my favorite ‘get warm fast’ remedies is to take a warm bath! I even like to pair my warm bath with some hot tea or cocoa, and some essential oil bath bombs or bubbles. But I’ve recently found that even this solution has its downside. Ankylosing Spondylitis causes severe pain and sensitivity in my spine, particularly my lower back, SI joints, and tailbone. This means sitting in a hard bathtub is often more pain than it’s worth. To avoid back pain in the bathtub, I use a folded towel as a cushion. When I’m trying to soothe joint pain in my feet, instead of taking a bath, I prefer to soak my feet in warm water and epsom salt using one of those cheap plastic dishpans commonly used to soak dirty dishes.
Ankylosing Spondylitis causes severe pain and sensitivity in my spine, particularly my lower back, SI joints, and tailbone. This means sitting in a hard bathtub is often more pain than it’s worth.
3. Pair Your Throw Blanket with an Electric Blanket
Throw blankets are nice, electric throw blankets nicer, but throw blanket + electric blanket is amazing! If you don’t have an electric throw blanket for the winter, you can find a quality one online for around $30. To maximize the warming potential of your electric blanket, and reduce the amount of heat escaping into thin air, try layering up by placing a regular throw blanket on top. In doing so, the top layer acts as an insulator to keep the heat in.
Battling Cold-Weather Joint Pain On the Trail
Of course, staving off the cold-weather joint pain on the trail is a lot more difficult! One of the best techniques, especially early in a hike, is to simply keep moving. That’s easier said than done when the joints you’re using to keep moving are throbbing and swelling! Aside from movement, here are three other tips that might help sooth cold-weather joint pain on a hike:
1. Dress Appropriately, and Utilize Layers
It’s important to dress in layers during cold-weather hikes so that you can easily adjust changes in temperature or activity level. Loose layers help trap in body heat, and an outer shell fend off cold winds. If you suffer hip pain, like I do, make sure to be extra selective when shopping for women’s clothing. I find many shirts and jackets are cut rather short (as if women don’t get cold around the midsection!), and a short shirt or jacket won’t help keep your hip joints warm on a hike!
2. Choose Trails that Offer More Direct Sunlight in the Winter
Here in New Mexico, I sort my favorite hiking trails into two categories: winter hikes and summer hikes. That’s because summer temperatures can soar into the high 90s and winter temperatures often drop into the 20s and 30s, making that hike with little shade unbearable during summer months but ideal in the winter. Hikes in pinyon-juniper woodland or badland environments of the American Southwest are notorious for their lack of shade, but the direct desert sunlight can often make a 30-degree day hike pretty comfortable!
3. Pack Warm Drinks and Insulate
What’s better on a cold winter day than a cup of hot cocoa? While I’m not sure how thirst-quenching hot cocoa is on the trail, hot green tea certainly can be! For those cold-weather winter hikes, try packing a thermos of hot green tea to sip on and warm you from the inside. If you don’t have a thermos, simply wrap your stainless steel, aluminum, or glass bottle with a dishcloth to provide some insulation. Packing a warm drink can also help ease aching joints in your hands by providing a warm object to hold on to!
In the end, I think it’s safe to say that many of us suffer aching joints in cooler weather. Whether or not the scientific evidence agrees doesn’t change the pain and swelling we experience, so it’s important to design your own routines to stay warm and fight back against the increased pain!