There are plenty of reasons to enjoy and look forward to the winter months, from beautiful leaves and snow to holiday fun (even if things look a little different this year). Unfortunately, many patients who struggle with joint pain actually come to dread this time of year, reporting that their symptoms become significantly worse as temperatures drop. But is this all anecdotal, or does cold weather really have an effect on your joints?

The board-certified, fellowship-trained physicians at OAA Orthopedic Specialists specialize in a variety of fields relating to joint pain, and we know how important it is for patients to understand the source of their pain when seeking treatment and relief. While researchers continue to study the effects of winter on the joints, here are a few potential reasons why cold weather may be exacerbating your joint pain symptoms each year:

Theory 1: Cold Weather Makes Your Joints Stiff

If part of your cold-weather experience as someone living with arthritis or other types of joint pain includes feelings of “stiffness” or a decrease in mobility, you’re not alone. In fact, there may be a direct correlation between the temperature and your joints’ flexibility. The effects of low temperatures are fairly universal to all of the muscles in your body: they become tighter and more tense. If this principle is applied to your joints, the increased pain you feel in cold weather could be attributed to tension, and it may even explain why you suddenly become less mobile in the wintertime.

Theory 2: Joint Fluid Becomes Thicker in the Cold

From our knees, shoulders and hips to our hands and our feet, all of our joints contain a thick substance called “synovial fluid,” the purpose of which is to lubricate the area, allowing your joints to operate smoothly as you work them throughout your day. Another theory researchers have explored suggests that colder temperatures can actually cause this joint fluid to thicken past its usual viscosity, limiting its ability to flow within your joints as it should. The result? Increased stiffness in your joints. This theory may be particularly relevant to those with arthritis of the knee, since joint fluid acts as a shock absorber in the knees and can be a serious factor when examining pain and loss of mobility in that area.

Theory 3: Barometric Pressure Causes Expansion

Some researchers have taken a step beyond the temperature itself when studying winter’s effects on joint pain, instead looking to barometric pressure as the potential catalyst. You or someone you know may insist that arthritis or a previous injury acts as a sort of weather predictor, becoming irritated and painful just before snow or other changes in the atmosphere. While this may sound a bit far-fetched, there may actually be merit to the claim: air pressure tends to drop significantly just before a change in weather, causing a decrease in overall pressure against your body. The tissue inside your body is now allowed to expand, potentially placing pressure on your joints and exacerbating pain in those with conditions such as arthritis. 

Theory 4: Pain May Be Mind Over Matter

The fourth theory researchers have considered has less to do with physical, orthopedic effects on your joints and more to do with what’s going through your mind on a cold, miserable winter’s day. While too many patients have described an increase in joint pain during winter to ignore, some scientists believe there may be a psychological factor to these reports. This isn’t to suggest that you’re making up an increase in pain -- in fact, it’s just the opposite. You may be feeling more pain on a warm, sunny, beautiful day than you realize, with your good mood detracting from your awareness of your pain. On a cold day with little else to focus on, you’re simply more aware of how much your joints hurt.

Whatever the reason is behind your increase in joint pain and stiffness during the wintertime, you deserve quick, effective relief to keep your season merry and bright. At OAA, we have a number of departments dedicated to treating your joint pain at the source, from our Pain Management focused physicians to the arthritis team at the OAA Rheumatology Institute. We even have a dedicated Joint Replacement Center should this be the appropriate long-term solution for you. Our specialists work with joints every day, giving you peace of mind beyond that provided by your general orthopedic practitioner.

If you live with increased joint pain every winter, the experienced, compassionate, specialized physicians at OAA will work alongside you to help you find the relief you need. If you’re ready to start living pain-free, schedule an appointment with us today.