Rheumatology Nov 29, 2022

Why Do Your Joints Hurt in the Winter?

Rheumatologist Kevin Hackshaw, MD, says that changes in atmospheric pressure, not temperature, can drive symptom flares

Reviewed by: Kevin Hackshaw, MD

Written by: Lauren Schneider

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As temperatures start to drop, you or a loved one with arthritis may notice more severe symptoms. You should think twice about blaming it all on Jack Frost, argues Kevin Hackshaw, MD, who serves in the Rheumatology Clinic at UT Health Austin.

“Cold itself is not the reason for the pain,” says Dr. Hackshaw. The phenomenon is instead believed to result from the cellular effects of weather-related changes to atmospheric pressure.

Expanding tissue around joints and nerves

Dr. Hackshaw offers the example of a wooden cabinet to illustrate the cellular impact of air pressure fluctuations. At certain times of the year, a cabinet may become more difficult to open because changes in air pressure have caused the cells in the wood to expand. “When we experience barometric changes, our cells undergo that same expansion.”

Heightened arthritic pain may be experienced following similar microcellular changes in the cells surrounding joints, which include inflammatory cells. These cellular changes may also affect tissues surrounding nerve fibers, meaning that individuals with fibromyalgia or other forms of nerve pain may experience symptom flares during weather changes.

Managing inflammation through lifestyle

Should people with arthritis or fibromyalgia move to a certain climate to prevent these flares? Probably not, says Dr. Hackshaw, explaining that symptoms have more to do with net changes in air pressure than a specific number on the barometer. He notes that short-term weather events such as hurricanes can also influence joint and nerve pain.

These transient flares can be painful, but some relief is possible through routine exercise and a healthy diet. Dr. Hackshaw says that a diet rich in foods with the following compounds can mitigate inflammatory symptoms.

Omega-3 fatty acids

The inflammatory process is driven by several chain reactions at the molecular level. Omega-3 fatty acids fight inflammation by disrupting many of these pathways. Dr. Hackshaw says that cold-water fish are an especially good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants combat oxidative stress, a form of inflammation in which molecules called free radicals cause damage to cells. Antioxidant compounds can be found in many fruits and vegetables. “Typically, the darker the fruit, the higher the antioxidant content,” says Dr. Hackshaw.

Additional information about the role of nutrition in fighting inflammation can be found in this pamphlet.

For more information about the Rheumatology Clinic or to schedule an appointment, click here or call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737).

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.