Overcoming Joint Pain During Winter

The human musculoskeletal system comprises of a collection of bones, muscles, cartilage, tendons, joints, ligaments and connective tissue. The interaction between these components is what ultimately constructs the human musculoskeletal system, and allows the body to function as it does on a day to day basis. The musculoskeletal system creates a foundational framework that supports the body, allows it to move in different directions and helps protect vital organs in the body, from trauma and bruising. However, due to its size and the number of components, the musculoskeletal system becomes more susceptible to damage as time goes by. Just like parts of a machine undergo wear and tear, the muscles and joints in humans too suffer the same fate as a person gets older. One of the most common disorders affecting the musculoskeletal system is Arthritis. In fact, as of 2013, nearly 20% of the residents of the UAE were suffering from some form arthritis.

Arthritis is not a disease in itself but is more commonly used as a term to refer to the disorders affecting a person’s joints. Common symptoms of arthritis include swelling, pain, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion. These symptoms are not persistently present, but come and go depending on whether the condition is acute or chronic. Severe arthritis can not only cause immense pain but can also prevent a person from performing simple daily activities like walking or climbing. Furthermore, chronic arthritis may also cause permanent changes in the joint and over time it may start to have an effect on organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and skin. Although joint pains and aches caused due to arthritis affect a patient all year round, doctors have noted that those suffering from arthritis tend to experience more severe symptoms during the winter.

The hypothesis that winter causes an increase in the severity of joint pain has been backed largely by subjective patient evidence. Individuals suffering from arthritis and other joint disorders have always had their symptoms worsen during the advent of cold weather. A number of factors have been attributed to this phenomenon, including lifestyle and topographical causes. The most important causes of these are a lack of natural vitamin D during the winters, an aversion to exercise, lack of mobility during the winter and change in the atmospheric pressure due to change in the outside temperature.

In the human body, vitamin D is synthesised when sunlight reacts with the skin to cause a chemical reaction. During winter, however, the days get shorter which means that the amount of natural sunlight that people are exposed to also diminishes. This is the reason vitamin D deficiency is common in countries with harsh winters. Lack of adequate vitamin D can lead to weaknesses of bones and joints. Another drawback of winter is the aversion to exercising and walking that is created by the cold temperature. When temperatures fall, people choose to commute by car, even when covering small distances. Furthermore, the cold weather serves as a deterrent for people to exercise and be active. This lack of mobility and activity compounds the effect of joint pain due to arthritis and causes the symptoms to be more severe during the winters.

However, the key link between the coming of winter and the severity of joint pains is based on the changes in the atmospheric pressure. High atmospheric pressure pushes against the body from outside and prevents the tissues in the joint from expanding. On the other hand, as the atmospheric pressure falls, tissues in the body expand, which puts more pressure on the nerves that control pain signals, especially in the joints.

Despite the effect that winter might have in aggravating joint pains, certain preventive measures can help minimise the stress of winter on joints;

  • Wearing adequate winter clothing including scarfs, winter caps, gloves, thermals etc.
  • Walking indoors
  • Using the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible
  • Stretching or doing light exercises when in front of the TV or laptop

As the winter wears on, if the symptoms continue to worsen it is recommended to consult a specialist as there may be a larger underlying issue.

Dr. Ranjith Narayan

Specialist in Orthopedic Surgery

Aster Hospital, Mankhool