Nikki Porges, registered nurse in AXA Health’s 24/7 health support line for members

Coping with winter aches and pains

4 October 2023

Joint pain can occur anytime throughout the year, but can feel worse and harder to cope with during the cold and wet winter months.

Nikki Porges, registered nurse in AXA Health’s 24/7 health support line for members, explains how 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 osteoarthritis 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.

Rheumatoid arthritis

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.

Reactive arthritis

Some people may get reactive arthritis after catching a sexually transmitted infection (STI), or a 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

Another condition that flares up in cold weather is Raynaud’s Phenomenon, 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 often making them painful.

Other symptoms of Raynaud’s include:

  • numbness
  • pins and needles
  • 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 Raynaud’s, including 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.

Low levels of vitamin D

Vitamin D is synthesised in the skin as a result of UVB exposure from sunlight. It is also found in small quantities in certain foods, including:

  • liver
  • oily fish (herring, salmon, mackerel, and sardines)
  • eggs
  • wild mushrooms.
  • It’s also added to some fortified products such as cereals, spreads, milk and milk substitutes, however it’s unlikely you could get enough from diet alone.

Vitamin D is important for bone healthy and muscles function. A low level of vitamin D can result in joint and muscular pain. As the strength of the sunlight reaching us weakens from October to March, the NHS advice is to take 10mcg of Vitamin D per day1.

Find out more about this important vitamin and how to spot the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency in our article Do I need a vitamin D supplement?

Tips for dealing with aches and pains

Keeping moving will help keep your joints mobile and your muscles strong, which can reduce pain and help you stay independent.

1. Don’t let cold weather put you off normal physical activities and errands

Wrap up warm (hat, gloves, scarf etc.) and wear appropriate footwear to prevent you from slipping if it’s wet or icy. It’s a good idea to wear layers in cold weather, so that you can peel them off as you warm up.

2. If you’re new to exercise, don’t overdo it

Slowly build the amount you do. If you can't manage 30 minutes break it up into 10-minute chunks. Make sure you warm up with a spot of fast walking or gentle jogging.

3. Whatever activity you choose, remember good posture

Every activity can be done differently, so think about which positions put the least strain on your joints. For example, reaching to lift a heavy object from a high cupboard puts more strain on your shoulder than if you used a step or ladder.

4. Pain isn’t just a physical sensation, it can have emotional effects too

Pain often makes us feel upset and tired. And if stops us getting out and about it can make us feel lonely and isolated too. Some people may already feel low during the winter months (Seasonal Affective Disorder), so pain can exacerbate a low mood.

If you feel that you’re not coping – with pain or your mood – reach out to your GP. 


  1. How much Vitamin D do I need? - NHS

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