By DAMON RASKIN, M.D. | Special to the Palisadian-Post
QUESTION: During the winter months, my joints seem to get really stiff. I’m only 46, but when I get out of bed on cold mornings, I can barely walk because my knees feel so stiff. My fingers take a long time to warm up too. Is it arthritis?
DR. RASKIN: When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me that she was better than the weatherman in predicting that a storm was coming. I was amazed when the cold and rain started soon after her forecasts. Although she did always seem to be right, it wasn’t until much later that I understood why this was the case. I wanted to think that my grandma had some extraordinary powers, but after practicing medicine for all these years, I came to the realization that many of my patients could do the exact same thing!
If you do have some inflammation or arthritis in your joints, swelling can increase as barometric pressure drops. If you think of the tissues surrounding the joint as a balloon, the balloon around the joint will expand a little when the air pressure drops. The swelling irritates the nerves around the joints, causing pain.
Another theory is that during colder weather the body conserves heat by allowing more blood to travel to core organs such as the heart and lungs. When this happens, the blood vessels in the hands and lower extremities constrict and therefore the extremities receive less blood flow. This in turn leads to more joint discomfort.
Furthermore, when it’s about to rain, the barometric pressure often drops and this can cause the sensory receptors around the joints to become more reactive, leading again to more pain. The science behind these theories has been debatable for years. But don’t tell that to all my patients who get worsening pain in cold weather.
Weather changes can have similar effects on other painful conditions such as migraine headaches and even asthma.
One helpful hint, although it seems obvious, is to keep warm. This can be done with layering on extra clothes at night or bumping up activity to increase blood flow.
It is understandable that people with joint pain want to avoid going out to exercise in cold weather. Coming up with an indoor exercise regimen to keep moving is a good alternative. Even walking quickly around the mall can be good for the joints this time of year. Swimming in a heated pool can also be a great reliever for painful joints.
So the answer to your question is that, yes indeed, you may have some form of arthritis or inflammation in your joints that can be exacerbated by cold weather. See your primary care doctor or rheumatologist to get a formal diagnosis as blood tests and x-rays may be more definitive than just your body telling you something.
On the other hand, grandma may have been right without needing any bloodwork or x-rays. And there may just be something to the old phrase “chilled to the bone.”