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How to Manage Arthritis in Winter

Some people claim their knees can predict a cold snap. Is it just a myth or does arthritis really get more acute in winter? The medical profession is sceptical about weather affecting the condition but some explanations have been put forth.

  • Barometric pressure is one – some say the lower atmospheric pressure in winter allows joints to swell, putting pressure on the nerve cells, signalling pain to the brain. The logic is rejected by many doctors who say atmospheric pressure changes are so minimal at sea level, it is an unlikely cause.
  • Lack of physical exercise in winter – this theory has more takers with a proven link between lack of exercise and acute arthritis.

What is arthritis?

It is an umbrella term used for 100 types of musculoskeletal conditions where a person’s joints may have pain, stiffness or deformity. Some of the most common conditions are:

  • Osteoarthritis: this occurs when the protective cartilage in the bone breaks down. Movement results in the bones rubbing against each other causing acute pain. The cartilage breakdown is related to loss of bone density as we age. It is often referred to as degenerative arthritis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: is an auto-immune condition where the immune system overreacts and attacks healthy tissue.
  • Gout: if the body produces too much uric acid (or does not expel it fast enough), the result can be crystals in the joint, which can cause very painful inflammation.

For some, being diagnosed with arthritis is life-changing. The debilitating, persisting pain can impact their professional, personal and social lives significantly because it impacts the most fundamental activity – moving. Those with acute arthritis find it difficult to walk, drive and even cook. According to ABS, 3.85 million Australian are affected by arthritis at a cost of $23 billion a year. It is a myth that arthritis is a geriatric condition – 2.4million are still in the workforce. According to Arthritis Australia, 6000 children have been diagnosed, but the condition is severely under-reported due to lack of awareness.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Some of the indicators can be:

  • Painful, swollen joints
  • Redness and a feeling of heat around the area
  • Difficulty and pain in movement
  • Tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Skin problems – these could be a part of the auto-immune response that causes some kinds of arthritis


Managing the pain of arthritis

The bad news is that there is no cure. The good news – it can be very effectively managed. Depending on the type and intensity of arthritis, the GP may recommend a pain management plan which is a combination of pain-killers and pain management techniques. The GP is likely to bring on a specialist such as rheumatologist, physiotherapist, occupational therapist or a psychologist. These are some treatment options:

  • Pain medication: There are several OTC drugs containing aspirin or ibuprofen. For cases of acute pain, the GP may recommend a corticosteroid injection near the joint. Also, some cream/ointment based products can target pain areas.
  • Disease modifying drugs: These are used for inflammatory forms of arthritis. They aim at the cause by controlling the auto-immune response. Another variant of this are biologics – they don’t suppress the entire immune system, just the cells and proteins causing the damage.
  • Supplements like glucosamine may be recommended to support joint function and repair.

Don’t let arthritis hold you back

Unfortunately, joint pain is one condition that gets worse with too much rest. The most effective way to cope with it if being as active as you possibly can. Don’t let the cold weather hold you back:

  • Physical exercise: stretching, strength training and aerobic exercise – particularly walking and swimming are great for maintaining muscle strength and joint flexibility.
  • Non-invasive, non-drug ways to cope with pain: Heat packs for pain and cold packs for inflammation, meditation to relax and stretches to relieve muscle tension are all ways in which you can find relief from recurring pain. Your GP may provide you with resources to help you cope on your own.
  • Special tools: You will be absolutely amazed at the ingenious gadgets out there that can make life easier for you. Seatbelt attachments, grip-friendly remote controls with large buttons and ergonomic kitchen utensils with large rubber handles – all aimed at keeping arthritic patients independent.
  • Diet: There is no recommended diet for arthritis pain, but doctors recommend that you stick to a healthy diet that keeps your weight in check. Your joints don’t need more stress than they are already coping with.
  • Support groups: If you like social interaction then support groups are a great way to share information, experiences and get help when you need it.

Don’t let arthritis get in the way of leading a normal life. If you’ve experienced persistent pain, speak to your GP who will be able to put you on an effective pain management plan.

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