As I sit writing this, it’s raining and sleeting outside. This weather can best be described as raw, and I can feel it in my bones. Many people come in to see me on days like this complaining of joint pain and discomfort, only to dismiss it as being “in their heads.” But that’s simply not true. There is a very real phenomenon that occurs in wet, raw weather that makes our joints ache. If this harkens back to remembering your grandmother’s insisting that her knees could forecast the weather, well… she was right.
The science of it is this: decreases in barometric pressure outside actually do lead to drops in barometric pressure inside your joints. Although barely perceptible in young, healthy joints, it becomes much more noticeable in—shall we say, “more experienced” joints. The trouble is that as joints become arthritic, changes in barometric pressure not only become noticeable, they create discomfort and even pain. Does that mean you should hibernate? Absolutely not! Here are some tips to keep your “experienced” joints more comfortable in cold, wet weather.
- Manage inflammation. If you have “overdone it” recently—decorating for the holidays, raking leaves, splitting wood, Christmas shopping—you have probably irritated some joints. That leads to inflammation. Arthritis, by definition, is an inflammatory disorder, but we all tend to over-do it from time to time, setting off inflammation that creates more discomfort than usual. If this is your situation, do what you know works to control it. You probably already have a go-to therapy, whether it includes medication, ice or heat. Whatever works for your body, start controlling inflammation right away.
- Warm-up. Literally. If this means blankets or heating pads, fine. Maybe it’s some movement: marching in place or walking around. Maybe it’s both. Warming up should increase blood flow to the joints and muscles, helping you move more freely—even if it’s a little uncomfortable in the beginning.
- Stretch. This can be a chicken-egg thing. Tight muscles can be the result of sore, painful joints. The opposite can also be true. In most cases, stretching will only make it better. Yes, your joints are stiff. Go into any stretches gently, and only after you’ve warmed up a little. Back off if you feel the stretch is creating more pain. Instead of holding stretches for 20-30 seconds, try shorter bouts like 10-15 seconds, then repeat each stretch 3-4 times.
- Exercise. This is not to be confused with your warm-up (above.) By exercise, I mean move and load your joints a little. You might use body weight as resistance, or resistance equipment like bands or dumbbells. Once the body is warm and stretched, working the muscles around the joints helps to stimulate synovial fluid, the “lubricant” that surrounds major joints and helps them stay mobile. You may have to get creative here. Walking may be too much on arthritic hips and knees. An exercise machine like a bike or elliptical, or even water may be far more tolerable. Especially on a wet, raw day, the name of the game is finding exercise that feels good and helps you move better. Sometimes that’s fundamentally different than exercise that you would do on a “normal” day.
I know it would be really easy to snuggle up with a good book and a cup of hot tea on a day like today, but that won’t really bring relief to my achy back, and it won’t really help you either. So let’s get moving in spite of this cold rainy weather so that our joints have no need to play “barometer.” Joints were designed to move our bodies—not play Weather Man!