Managing Osteoarthritis in the Winter

Winter is fast approaching, and as many people with arthritis will be able to tell you, they can feel it in their bones and joints. While arthritis affects people throughout the year, it seems to be worse in cold, damp, wet weather – similar to what we experience here during the winter months. The reason for this is unknown and not scientifically proven; however, anecdotally, many people vow their body can predict the weather. It may be due to barometric changes in the atmosphere, changes in physical activity levels or types, or simply due to alterations to the way we walk on icy sidewalks. Regardless of the cause, winter can already be a difficult time of year for many, with shorter, colder days filled with less sunlight, and while we can’t control the weather, we can control what we can do to combat the symptoms of osteoarthritis in the winter.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the degenerative type of arthritis that affects the articular cartilage and underlying bones in our joints. The most common symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty with movement

Managing these symptoms is vital to improve or maintain well-being all year round, especially during the cold winter months.

How to Manage and Cope with the Symptoms of Osteoarthritis in the Winter

  1. Keep moving! When we stop moving our joints stop moving, leading to the stiffness and decreased range of motion. As well, our muscles start to atrophy, and we lose strength and muscle mass. The combination of these two components can result in decreased stability and support around the joint, increased stiffness, and increased pain. That is why it is so important to stay active, even in the winter! While it may not be conducive to do outdoor activities, there are still plenty of ways to stay active.
    • Walking indoors or outdoors – Walking on cleared sidewalks on a sunny day, or inside around a track or at the mall.
    • Pool exercises – the buoyancy of the water greatly reduces the weight of the body going through the joints allowing you to exercise without putting stress on the joint. Practicing in warmer water is typically better.
    • Home exercise programs – there are programs online or if you are not tech-savvy, you can get a program from a kinesiologist or physiotherapist.
  2. Get outside when you can. The reason for this is to increase Vitamin D levels. Naturally, vitamin D can be absorbed through the skin from sunlight. It is necessary for developing healthy bones, reducing inflammation, and promoting a healthy immune system. It also helps increase serotonin levels to improve mood, all of which are important in combating the symptoms of OA. So, take advantage of the sunny days. If you can’t get outside, talk to a medical professional about the possibility of taking a Vitamin D supplement.
  3. Dress warm. Wearing thick, loose layers to stay warm during these cold months is important in keeping the blood flowing around your joints. As well, it is beneficial to keep your body heat in by wearing mitts, warm socks, hats, and scarves.
  4. Ask for help with physically demanding tasks, mainly shovelling. Shovelling can be strenuous and stressful on the joints. While asking for help might be difficult, the repercussions of not asking for help might be worse. As well, asking for help is a great way to form social connections that can sometimes be lacking in the winter months when people tend to stay inside. Often times, the person you are asking to help is more than happy to lend a hand and it can make them feel good too! Just remember to be appreciative and give back however you can.
  5. Stay safe. Along with winter comes icy conditions and high snowbanks. Make sure you have proper footwear – a solid shoe with some tread for the slippery ice and snow – and pay attention to wear you are walking to avoid any injuries that can exacerbate your OA symptom. As well, try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you might have to climb over a big snow pile or walk across an icy patch.
  6. Stress reduction and relaxation techniques are not only great for physically relaxing the muscles, but also to mentally calm the mind. High stress can decrease our body’s ability to cope with pain. Some good ways to reduce stress include yoga, tai chi, meditation, massage therapy, or taking a warm shower or bath.
  7. Physiotherapy can also be very helpful in managing OA symptoms all year round. Physiotherapy can help to increase strength, ROM, and flexibility, manage pain, develop coping mechanisms, and develop an exercise program that is individualized to you and your abilities.
  8. Bracing is great for keeping you active and moving. Depending on the brace, they can reduce forces through the joint, lessening pain with activities; they can help stabilize the joint and give more support; and/or they can provide compression and warmth around the joint. For more information, get booked in to see a bracing specialist.

Enjoy the winter! It lasts a while here in the Maritimes, but there are plenty of ways to cope and enjoy it!

How Can We Help?

At the Arthritis and Injury Care Centre, we strive to help patients on their journey and provide them with the education and support they need. If you or a loved one would like more information on how we can help, please contact us for an opportunity to meet with one of our staff.

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