The gray skies and bite in the air signal that winter has arrived. Though recent studies have not shown strong evidence that correlates cooler weather to increased arthritis symptoms, as a practicing physical therapist, my office fills up every fall and winter with patients who are experiencing pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. Most patients complain that their legs feel so stiff that they can hardly bend their knees. Is it the cold weather? Maybe, but it is the change in our lifestyle, too. In the Northeast we see a dramatic change in our patients' lifestyles; the shortened daylight hours and the cold weather make it more difficult to keep active. Exercise relieves many of the symptoms of arthritis, so a decrease in activity typically causes an increase in arthritic symptoms.
Arthritis is inflammation (or swelling) of one or more joints (a joint is the area where two bones meet). Cartilage normally protects a joint, allowing it to move smoothly and absorbs shock when pressure is placed on the joint, like when you walk. Without the normal amount of cartilage, the bones rub together, causing pain, swelling and stiffness.
There are several easy steps you can take to reduce arthritis symptoms in the winter. First, keep exercising! You need to maintain good physical activity to support the integrity of the joints. Daily activity helps to increase circulation and decrease swelling and stiffness, and is the preferred treatment for osteoarthritis and other types of joint inflammation. Exercise can also help relieve pain and fatigue, and improve muscle and bone strength.
In addition, low-impact aerobic activity, range of motion exercises for flexibility, strength training for muscle tone, the application of heat or ice, water therapy, massage and sleep can all help relieve painful arthritis symptoms. Sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night and taking naps during the day can help the body more quickly recover from an arthritis flare-up and may even help prevent flare-ups. Just try to avoid lying in one position for too long and engaging in movements or positions that place extra stress on your sore joints.
Consider installing grab bars in the shower, in the tub and near the toilet, for example, to make daily tasks and activities easier. Stress reduction, flexibility and toning exercises such as yoga can also be great pain management — and pain prevention — tools. Start with 10 minutes of gentle stretching exercises every morning to relax stiff muscles. If you are overweight, weight loss can greatly ease joint pain in areas such as the legs and feet. A healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables helps with weight loss. It also provides your body with minerals and vitamins, like vitamin D, that help build bones and strengthen muscles, which can ease joint pain. If possible, avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, as these products have a drying effect on cartilage.
These simple tips can help ease arthritis pain during the colder months of winter. If your symptoms persist, it is highly recommended to follow up with your physician. Your physician will make decisions based on the exacerbation of symptoms and begin to treat you with pharmacological agents (such as acetaminophen) and formal physical therapy treatment.
Published December 12, 2011
John Gallucci, Jr., MS, ATC, PT, DPT, is the president of JAG Physical Therapy, which is based in New Jersey. He currently serves as the medical coordinator for Major League Soccer and sits as a resource person to the New Jersey Governor's Council on Physical Fitness.