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Beacon doctor explains why your joints hurt in colder weather and how to treat discomfort

If you have been feeling increased joint pain the past few weeks, you can blame it on weather. Falling temperatures can make your arthritis feel more painful and stiffness worsen.

Dr. Alyssa Erskine

Joint pain is fairly common, and it can happen at any age, although people over the age of 50 are more likely to experience it. The discomfort can be constant or come and go, affecting a person’s enjoyment of life and their ability to continue their normal activities.

Cold weather may cause joints to feel tighter, stiffer and more painful. There are many theories about why this happens, one being the drop in barometric pressure, or pressure of the air around us. This makes stretching and other daily activity even more important during the winter months.

“I like to tell patients that the body is made to be in motion,” said Dr. Alyssa Erskine, internal medicine physician at Three Rivers Health Center for Family Medicine. “Even if it is too cold to get outside, take a couple walks around the inside of your home. Try a free yoga video online. There are even videos for chair yoga or bed exercises for those that are less mobile.”

Other common causes of joint pain

Arthritis. We probably all have at least one person in our family with arthritis, a frequent cause of joint pain. Did you know there are more than 100 different types of arthritis?

When most of us think of arthritis, it’s osteoarthritis that comes to mind. That’s when a person’s cartilage is damaged and wears away over time. It takes a long time to develop, so it usually affects people who are middle-aged or older.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an immune disease, meaning the person’s immune system attacks their body – in this case, the tissue in their joints. Not only can RA be quite painful, it can cause joints to become deformed.

Tendinitis and bursitis. Both of these conditions affect the soft tissue around joints. Tendons are a type of tissue that connects muscles to bones, while bursae are small sacs that help our joints move smoothly.

When tendons or the bursae get irritated, it can feel like joint pain. Both tendinitis and bursitis tend to happen when joints are overused, although they can also be related to other medical conditions.

“Bursitis and tendonitis can be surprisingly painful,” Dr. Erskine said. “Rest is often recommended for these conditions; however, I still encourage patients to continue gentle range of motion exercises that keep these segments from freezing up.”

Infections. Viral infections, flu and COVID-19 can all lead to pain due to swelling and inflammation. The pain related to viral infections usually goes away within a few days or after the illness has passed.

Although many infections are mild, it’s important to know that a bacterial infection in the joint is quite serious and can quickly damage bone and cartilage.

“It is important you seek medical attention right away if you have a joint that is red, hot, and swollen, as this can be a sign of an injection in the joint,” Dr. Erskine said. “Joint infections can quickly damage bone and cartilage, so this needs to be evaluated as quickly as possible.

What to do about joint pain

There are a few situations in which you should quickly see a health care provider for joint pain.

Seek immediate care if:

  • Your pain is severe.
  • You can’t use the joint.
  • Your joint swells up suddenly.
  • The joint’s shape looks different than usual.

Immediate care may not be needed for the following, but you should promptly make an appointment with your provider if:

  • You have a fever.
  • Your joint is red or swollen.
  • The area around the joint feels warm or tender.

Fortunately, most of us experience joint pain that’s mild enough to manage at home with over-the-counter pain relievers. You can also apply ice or a cold pack to the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, up to several times a day. This is typically most helpful after a mild injury.

Many people find heat to be helpful, either from a heating pad or a warm shower or bath.

If mild to moderate joint pain doesn’t go away after a week or two, especially if it interferes with your daily activities and quality of life, talk to your provider. There are many effective treatment options available, ranging from simple physical therapy to injections to joint replacement surgery.

“I like to recommend that patients use heat for tight, sore muscles and ice for inflammation,” Dr. Erskine said. “It can often be helpful to switch between the two.”

The bottom line advice Dr. Erskine offers?

“Maintaining mobility and range of motion is one of the best things to help joint pain both acute and chronic,” she said.

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