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7 ways to help arthritis pain in winter

19 Jan 2021

If your arthritis joint pain feels worse in the colder months, there are plenty of things you can do to help. Dr Rhianna McClymont, Livi Lead GP, explains

Quick facts

  • Omega-3 oils (found in oily fish like salmon and mackerel) could have anti-inflammatory effects on joints
  • Eating a Mediterranean-style diet — rich in oily fish, wholegrains and vegetables — can also be helpful
  • Regular exercise is considered the most effective, non-drug treatment for reducing osteoarthritis pain

When the temperature drops, many people find that their hands, knees, feet, back or hips can feel stiff, tender, sore or ‘creaky’. For those with osteoarthritis – the most common form of arthritis – joints can also feel painful and inflamed.

Osteoarthritis most commonly develops in the mid-40s or older, and tends to run in families . It’s thought that more than 40 million people in Europe suffer from it, with more women affected than men.

What is arthritis?

There are two types of arthritis — osteoarthritis, which is more common and usually age-related, and rheumatoid arthritis which can affect people of any age.

‘Osteoarthritis is often referred to as the “wear and tear” arthritis,’ says Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi. ‘It’s caused by the protective cartilage inside joints, which acts as a ‘shock absorber’, becoming damaged and wearing down. This causes pain and swelling, which is normally most severe when moving the joint.’

Osteoarthritis pain usually lasts for less than 30 minutes at a time. It affects the smooth cartilage lining of the joint, making movement more difficult than usual. It most often develops in the hands, lower back and neck, and in weight-bearing joints like the knees, hips and feet.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) on the other hand, is an auto-immune condition in which the immune system starts to attack the joints. Although it’s far less common, RA can affect anyone, including the very young, and the earlier you seek medical help for it, the better the outcome. RA causes prolonged pain in the joints, including stiffness and swelling. It commonly affects the small joints of the fingers and toes, the wrists, elbows, shoulders and knees and the neck and jaw.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

If you have pain that gets worse the more you use your joints, a stiffness that’s not there in the mornings, or any of the symptoms above, talk to a doctor.

Does arthritis pain really get worse in winter?

In the cold winter months, many people with osteoarthritis complain that their joints feel worse. One study in 2019 suggested that those with the condition were 20% more likely to suffer pain on days when it’s windy and humid.

‘Although I often hear from patients that their joint pain gets worse in the winter months, the exact science on this is unclear,’ says Dr McClymont.

‘Some theories suggest lower atmospheric pressure is the cause, others relate to increased sensitivity of nerves in cold weather or reduced exercise/activity levels during winter months, leading to increased stiffness and pain. However, these are all hypothetical and at present we just don’t have a definite answer for this.’

Whatever the reason, while osteoarthritis is an incurable condition, the good news is that there are ways to manage the pain.

Here's what can help winter arthritis pain:

1. Maintain a healthy weight

‘If you are obese, and therefore carrying extra weight, that puts extra strain on the joints and can exacerbate osteoarthritis,’ says Dr McClymont. ‘Regular exercise and a healthy diet plan to maintain a healthy weight and BMI are ideal.’

There’s strong evidence that losing weight can improve your overall health and physical function and this applies to those with osteoarthritis. Losing just 10% of your weight — if you are overweight or obese — can lead to significant improvement in symptoms of osteoporosis and pain relief.

A Livi doctor can help you with a plan toward achieving a healthy weight.

2. Eat a joint-friendly diet

Experts recommend that those with osteoarthritis aim to eat at least 1 portion of oily fish, like salmon or mackerel a week. The omega-3 oils found within the fish have anti-inflammatory properties that may help those suffering with this condition.

A Mediterranean-style diet that includes healthy oils, nuts and wholegrains may also help. One study found that patients with osteoarthritis had a significant reduction in pain after switching to a wholefoods, plant-based diet. Patients in the study also lost weight without counting calories or limiting portions.

A deficiency in vitamin K (found in olive oil and margarine) may increase the risk of osteoarthritis, so there is some suggestion that increasing this vitamin may help — talk to a doctor about this option first.

Vitamin D is also needed for bone cartilage and health. Although it’s found in egg yolk, liver and oily fish, it’s mainly absorbed via sunlight so most people should consider taking a supplement of around 10mg per day, especially during winter months.

3. Cut down on pro-inflammatory foods

Some foods are believed to be pro-inflammatory for joints, which means they could make symptoms worse. These include omega-6 polyunsaturated fats found in corn, sunflower and safflower oils, as well as saturated fats found in animal products. It may be helpful to remove as much fat from meat as possible before you cook and replace omega-6 fats with oils and spreads rich in mono-unsaturated fats like rapeseed and olive oils.

4. Prioritise exercise

Research shows that people with osteoarthritis can benefit from exercise, though they may be concerned about their pain getting worse. In fact, exercise is considered the most effective, non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement for patients with osteoarthritis. Brisk walking, swimming, jogging, yoga and strength-training are all beneficial. The weekly recommendation for aerobic exercise is 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise a week.

5. Keep your joints warm

‘Keeping joints warm may help alleviate pain as warmth relaxes muscles and reduces stiffness,’ says Dr McClymont.

Warm showers and baths, heating pads, electric blankets and covering joints with gloves or even wrapping hands around hot drinks can all help with keeping your pain at bay in winter.

6. Talk to a doctor about your pain

It’s important to have a dialogue going with a doctor about how your arthritis is affected and your pain levels.

There are different pain-relief medicines you can take for osteoarthritis, depending on the severity of the condition and other health concerns.

These include over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol or your GP may prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or opioid.

In the UK, a doctor may also prescribe capsaicin cream, which works by blocking the nerves that send pain messages to the brain.

‘If over-the-counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen have not been sufficient to control osteoarthritis pain, then a doctor may prescribe stronger painkillers,’ says Dr McClymont.

7. Consider shock-absorbing footwear

If the pain is in your hips, knees or feet you might want to consider special footwear. ‘Supportive footwear with shock-absorbing properties is excellent to help with osteoarthritis, as this reduces the strain through the joints of the foot and leg,’ says Dr McClymont.

‘Shoe insoles that have foot-arch support and shock-absorbing cushioning can usually be bought from a pharmacy,’ she explains.

‘An NHS podiatrist would also be able to carry out a biomechanical foot assessment and provide appropriate insoles if osteoarthritis symptoms indicate this is necessary.’

A consultation with a Livi doctor may be helpful to assess your joint symptoms and recommend the best next steps.

REVIEWED BY
Dr Rhianna McClymont
Lead GP at Livi
Last updated:

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