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Joint pain can occur anytime throughout the year, but can feel worse and harder to cope with during the cold and wet winter months. Our Head of Clinical Services, Jan Vickery, explains.
“A change in the weather will not cause arthritis pain, but it can make the symptoms more noticeable. When we are cold our body restricts how much blood it sends around extremities, like our hands and feet, so that it can focus on supplying vital organs, like the heart and lungs. This makes the soft tissues around the joints less pliable, so joints can feel tight, stiff and uncomfortable.”
Some common causes of winter aches and pains
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis. As we age, the cartilage that cushions our joints can gradually waste away, leading to rubbing of bone on bone. This can cause biomechanical changes that result in pain. Injury that causes damage to a joint can also trigger osteoarthritis later on in life. Other symptoms of osteoarhritis to look out for include swelling, stiffness and a grating sound when you move the joint. Bony growths can also develop.
You can find out more about the symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of osteoarthritis in our NHS factsheet.
This occurs when your body’s immune system attacks the joints – usually in the hands, wrists and feet. The joints and inflamed tissues then become stiff, painful and swollen. People with rheumatoid arthritis may experience flare-ups, when symptoms get worse; they may also experience more general symptoms such as tiredness or weight loss. If left untreated rheumatoid arthritis can lead serious complications, including an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as joint damage, so it’s important get an early diagnosis. Find out more in our Rheumatoid arthritis NHS factsheet.
Some people may get reactive arthritis after catching a sexually transmitted infection (STI), viral infection such as the flu or food poisoning. This is less common and usually clears up on its own, but can last for months. With reactive arthritis symptoms usually affect joints in the legs – from the hips down to the toes. It can also infect the genital tract causing discharge and pain when urinating, and the eyes causing pain, redness and discharge. If vision becomes blurred you should seek immediate medical attention. Find out more about this condition in our Reactive arthritis NHS factsheet.
Raynaud’s Phenomenon (or Raynaud’s)
Another condition that flares up in cold weather is Raynauds Phenomenon, also known as Reynaud’s. This is a common condition in which the blood vessels under your skin go into a temporary spasm in reaction to the cold, cutting off normal blood flow. This is not a joint problem but it affects the fingers and toes, making them painful. Other symptoms of Raynaud’s include numbness, pins and needles and difficulty moving the affected area; your fingers and toes may also change colour. There are things you can do to help manage the symptoms of Renaud’s and also a prescription medication called nifedipine that can help with circulation. See our NHS factsheet on Raynaud’s for further information, including when you should see your GP.
Overuse and repetition
The most common cause of joint pain in people under 50 is injury due to overuse or repetition, high levels of force or awkward postures, especially if sustained for long periods of time. Often cases occur from overdoing normal, everyday activities, such as lifting heavy bags or digging in the garden. Jan warns, “repetitive movements, like digging the garden, particularly in awkward postures that involve high forces over a long period, are more likely to lead to accident or injury – so pace yourself when taking on this kind of job.”