For many, arthritis is affected by cold weather. Over the years, I’ve found strategies to help prevent flare-ups and manage symptoms during the winter months.
For many people living with arthritis, it may seem as if flare-ups occur more frequently or more severely during a particular season. For some, like me, colder weather and rain may trigger disease activity.
When I was 26 years old, I learned that cold weather triggered my flare-ups, 6 years after my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis. Since childhood, I have always loved watching and experiencing the rain. Often, this led me to enjoy storms a little too closely and come home soaking wet.
At 26 years old, I learned the hard way that I couldn’t do that anymore after a severe flare-up, despite warming myself again after coming inside after being in the rain. I learned that it might not be the best idea to push my body’s limits when spending time in cold weather.
If you experience more frequent flare-ups or more severe arthritis symptoms in the colder parts of the year, here are some tips that could make these months easier. Learning what to avoid and incorporate into my daily routine has given me a little more control over my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
While some strategies have provided immediate relief, others have had a more long-term impact on me. Now that I understand how to manage my RA in the colder months, I experience fewer flare-ups, even during the winter.
I can tell you firsthand that cold weather affects my arthritis, and many others will agree.
One 2015 study of older adults living with osteoarthritis found an association between high humidity days and worsening joint pain. This was especially true in cold weather conditions. However, day-to-day temperature changes didn’t seem to increase joint pain.
Another study out of Madrid, Spain found people with rheumatoid arthritis between the ages of 50 and 65 were 16% more likely than younger individuals with the condition to have worsening symptoms in cold weather.
It’s not just the cold that affects arthritis. Extreme temperatures — both hot and cold — have been found to aggravate RA symptoms.
While there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that colder weather does affect arthritis, researchers aren’t exactly sure why this is the case.
If you’re dreading cold weather taking its toll on your arthritis, know that there are things you can do to manage it. In addition to cold weather self-care strategies like heating pads, baths, acupressure, and paraffin wax treatments, here are seven ways to manage arthritis in cold weather.
If the cold triggers your symptoms, this is the most important tip. Rather than finding ways to warm yourself when you’re already cold, look for ways to prevent getting cold in the first place.
I dress as warmly as possible by layering my clothes. I focus mainly on keeping the areas of my body that experience the most pain — my hands, knees, and legs — warm.
Remember to wear gloves and a hat every time you venture out into the cold. On days when it’s especially cold, rainy, or both, I try to decrease the time I’m in the cold altogether.
Warm water is a quick (and low cost) way to ease pain in the body caused by low temperatures. I recommend investing in a hot water bottle. You can fill it with hot water and place it on your joints and other areas where you feel pain.
If you live near a heated swimming pool or hot tub, you can incorporate exercise and warm water. The combination of gentle movement and warmth may help relieve stiffness and pain in your joints.
To make hydrotherapy even more beneficial, you can ask a doctor or occupational therapist about particular movements that can help you swim with less pain. Also, after swimming, be sure to completely dry off and put on warm clothes quickly to avoid becoming cold.
If a heated swimming pool is not available, you might find relief in warm baths. I often add Epsom salt.
While limiting your outdoor activities in cold weather, you could try indoor exercises that are also gentle on your joints. Walking is an effective exercise for pain management. You can find guided walking videos on YouTube that will get you moving. You can either follow along while walking in place or around your home.
I also have tried low impact indoor exercise classes like guided yoga. This can be great if you feel like socializing. But if not, YouTube is a great resource for free tutorials on many forms of exercise.
If you feel stiff when exercising, some gentle stretching could be helpful before, during, or after you exercise. Ensuring your body has warmed up and cooled down may help prevent injury and increased pain.
Remember, everyone’s body is different, and it may take some patience to find what you enjoy most and what movement feels best for your body.
A healthy diet is vital to fuel your body throughout the whole year. It’s critical to prioritize maintaining a balanced diet during seasons when you’re more prone to flares.
I like to eat more fruits and vegetables than I do during the rest of the year. You can try frozen fruits and vegetables if fresh produce is harder to come by in the cold months where you live.
Vitamin B12, found in beef, eggs, yogurt, and many types of fish, has been shown to help lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine in the blood have been linked to a higher risk of developing cardiovascular complications.
Because people with RA often have higher homocysteine levels than the general population, vitamins that help regulate homocysteine levels may be particularly beneficial.
Research from 2003 on 37 patients suggests that high inflammation levels among individuals with RA may be associated with lower levels of vitamin B6 and that vitamin B6 deficiency may contribute to symptom severity.
Likewise, vitamin B6 may help reduce levels of inflammation in people living with RA. Carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and bananas are only a few of the many common foods high in vitamin B6. If you consider taking any vitamins or supplements, be sure to consult a medical professional as needs differ from body to body.
During times of the year when my risk of having a flare is higher, I’m especially careful to avoid foods that may worsen inflammation, like alcohol and refined sugars.
Drinking enough water is essential to help your body function. Among other benefits, being sufficiently hydrated may help regulate your body temperature, aid in digestion, and boost your immune system.
However, it’s common not to drink as much water when it isn’t hot outside and you don’t think you’re sweating as much. If you find it challenging to remember to drink plain water, you can make it more interesting by adding ginger or fresh fruit. Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory food.
Plus, the additional walks to the bathroom, thanks to taking in more water, are an easy way to add a bit more movement to your day.
On the days when the pain is unmanageable, you may want to try alternative remedies. You can visit a massage therapist or try out acupuncture, which some believe can help reduce pain.
Research these options before you book your appointment and reach out to a doctor if you’re unsure whether the treatment may help.
Finally, make sure to listen and respond to your body’s needs during the winter months.
In the northern hemisphere, the holiday season falls during winter. Make sure that you try as much as possible to honor your body while taking part in the festivities around you. Prioritize limiting stress around you, even if this means saying “no” to some invitations or activities.
Also, try to remember not to feel guilty about taking breaks if you need to. It’s essential to focus on your health to enjoy the end-of-year events without risking a flare-up.
Cold weather may make your arthritis symptoms worse, but there are ways to manage it.
Bundle up, lean in to self-care strategies, and listen to your body. Warmer weather will be here before you know it.
Article originally published November 24, 2021. Last medically reviewed November 16, 2022.
Updated November 21, 2022
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