Why Does Cold Weather Trigger Joint Pain?

Cold Weather Joint Pain

The majority of participants with OA (67.2%) perceived the weather as affecting their pain.” 

-Erik J Timmermans, et al, Self-perceived weather sensitivity and joint pain in older people with osteoarthritis in six European countries: results from the European Project on OSteoArthritis (EPOSA). BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.

You better take a sweater! It’s gonna get cold tonight — I know ‘cause my knee is flaring up something awful.” Maybe you’ve heard that from your grandmother, or an uncle, or maybe you say it now and then. Knee pain, back pain, stiff neck and shoulders, old sports injuries — they show up every time cold weather comes. And you suffer until the warm weather comes back! People have seen a link between the weather and joint pain for centuries. Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine” wrote that his patients reported joint pain in cold and rainy weather.

What Does Modern Science Say About Joint Pain and the Weather?

Australian medical research claims that the weather and knee pain have nothing to do with each other.

Despite anecdotal reports from patients, change in weather factors does not appear to influence the risk of pain exacerbation in persons with knee osteoarthritis.

-M.L Ferreira, et al, The influence of weather on the risk of pain exacerbation in patients with knee osteoarthritis – a case-crossover study, Osteoarthritis and Cartilage Journal.

Another study, also Australian, says that weather changes don’t cause an increase in lower back pain.

In conclusion, this study demonstrates that many weather parameters previously believed to influence musculoskeletal pain do not increase the risk of an episode of LBP.

-Keira Beilken, et al, Acute Low Back Pain? Do Not Blame the Weather—A Case-Crossover Study. Pain Medicine, Oxford Academic.

Donald Redelmeir and Amos Tversky tell us in their research paper that it’s all in your head.

But the Joint Pain Is Real, Right?

Okay, science is telling you that joint pain flare-ups in cold weather aren’t a thing. They have statistics to back them up. But it’s cold, and you have joint pain. Why, then, do Google searches for joint pain increase when it’s cold?  Scott Telfer and Nick Olbradovich studied Google searches for hip and knee pain. They looked at the 50 most crowded cities in the United States over a 5 year period.

At temperatures from -5º to 30º Celsius (23º to 86º Fahrenheit), searches for pain increased:

  • Hip pain searches increased by 12 points.
  • Knee pain searches increased by 18 points.

It looks like there might be a connection after all. So, what causes it?

Nobody knows for sure, but here’s what Dr. James Gladstone of Mount Sinai School of Medicine thinks:

  • Barometric pressure. When the weather changes, barometric pressure drops. Body tissue such as muscle, tendons, and ligaments expand slightly. This puts pressure on nerves near the joints. If you have arthritis, you get joint pain.
  • In cold weather, the density of the fluid in your joints changes density. When you have osteoarthritis, the bones scrape against each other even harder because the fluid doesn’t give enough lube.
  • The cold makes your muscles tighten up. This can squeeze nerves in the joints and increase the pain. It’s worse if it makes you shiver.
  • You might be less active when it gets cold. Movement is a big help in reducing joint pain, but if you’re like a lot of people, you move around less when the winter weather strikes.

Joint Pain Relief in Cold Weather

Okay, there’s proof you’re not making it up. It’s cold, and your joints hurt. So what can you do about it? Here are a few time-tested tips:

  • Do some stretches before going out into the cold.
  • Get some exercise. Yoga, Tai Chi, and swimming increase muscle and bone strength.
  • Eat healthily. Good nutrition helps maintain your whole body, including your joints.
    • Omega 3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation. Salmon and nuts are good sources.
    • Eat leafy greens like spinach and kale. They are rich in vitamin K which helps soothe the pain.
    • Get vitamin C from citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit. Red bell peppers and tomatoes are also rich in vitamin C. It helps stop cartilage loss so you don’t increase friction in your joints.
  • Wear protective clothing to keep you warm. Remember, tight muscles and shivering can make the joints flare up.
  • Use a heating pad to warm up stiff joints.
  • Put a heating cream on painful joints.
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Proper rest helps your whole body heal.

You Might Need a Joint Pain Specialist

If the pain is too much, or if it doesn’t go away when it warms up, you might need a professional.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID). Over-the-counter NSAIDs like Tylenol, Aleve, and ibuprofen might work for you. If not, you might need a prescription NSAID.
  • Severe or chronic pain may require pain medication.

As you can see, you can do a lot to keep the pain at bay until the warm-weather season returns. But if your joint pain is still too much, we’re here to help.

Start with a preliminary diagnosis using our pain assessment tool below.