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
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 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.