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Why Utah’s cold winters make your joints hurt
November 30, 2017

There is a downside to living in a state that has the greatest snow on earth. Every winter, icy, cold storms blow through the valleys, and when that happens, you might be among those who swear the cold makes their bones ache.

You’re probably right.

Many people are sensitive to cold, wet weather, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

“Changes in barometric pressure — a measure that refers to the weight of the air — seem to be more important for pain levels than the actual barometric pressure,” the foundation reports. That means a cold front moving in can cause soreness in arthritic fingers. But once the weather settles in, your pain should subside.

There is scientific evidence to bolster the claims of people who say they can feel a weather change in their joints. In a study published in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers found patients with osteoarthritis in their knees experienced increased pain linked to changes in temperature and to barometric pressure.

Other studies have shown pressure changes can increase pain sensitivity in lower backs and can even be a catalyst for headaches.


How it works

Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us, explains WebMD. Imagine the tissues surrounding the joints to be like a balloon. High barometric pressure pushing against the body from the outside will keep tissues from expanding.

“Barometric pressure often drops before bad weather sets in,” WebMD says. “This lower air pressure pushes less against the body, allowing tissues to expand — and those expanded tissues can put pressure on the joint.”

Another theory proposes that in cold weather, blood vessels constrict around weight-bearing joints like knees, hips and ankles. Reduced blood flow in those areas allows them to become cold and stiff, which can result in more discomfort and pain.

What you can do

You can alleviate the pain by warming the affected joints with a heating pad or even a warm soak. The heat allows the muscles surrounding the joint to relax, which can help ease pain. At the same time, you want to prevent swelling, so compression stockings, neoprene sleeves, wraps or even spandex gloves can help limit fluid buildup.

Exercise can also help loosen stiff and inflamed joints. If you plan to be out in the cold, warmup stretching can help stave off some pain. Over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen can also help.

Reduced exercise level is also a suspected culprit in increased winter joint pain. When the weather is cold, many people don’t want to spend time outside. Regular movement is key in keeping joints loose and warm. When people spend more time sitting inside, the joints get stiff, and the result is a higher level of discomfort.

The good news is even if you don’t do anything, increased pain is usually short-lived. Your body adjusts to the pressure changes and your pain level should return to normal in a couple of days or less.

When to seek help

If your pain persists after the weather improves, if pain is severe or if it is chronic, you could have something more serious than just a touch of arthritis. The Precision Joint Replacement Center at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center specializes in the care of arthritis and joint replacement surgery.

If pain from arthritis is affecting your quality of life there are non-operative and operative solutions available. The most exciting is the minimally invasive surgeon assisted robotic surgical treatment utilizing the revolutionary Makoplasty technology. The Center for Precision Joint Replacement is committed to personalizing treatments to improve patient outcomes.

For more information or to schedule an appointment go to saltlakeregional.org/orthopedics.