Why Does the Cold Weather Make my Chronic Pain Worse?

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

Jenny L.F. Andrus, MD

If old wives could tell tales, they might let you know that your joints could predict the weather and let you know when rain is coming, or a cold spell was getting ready to move into the area.  As physicians, we typically would say that it was coincidental that our patients felt more pain whenever the weather worsened.  However, there is evidence that lends credence to this as well as simple common sense.  In this article, I’m going to discuss how cold weather can increase your pain and the steps you can take to remedy this issue.

As an Interventional Pain Management Physician, I see patients who have pain in specific areas of the body, such as their lower back, as well as throughout their entire body, as with fibromyalgia. Perhaps they have arthritis in their joints, or peripheral neuropathy. Most of these patients will report more pain during cold or rainy weather.

According to The Arthritis Foundation, “frigid temperatures can heighten pain sensitivity, slow blood circulation and cause muscle spasms. To make matters more complex, our joints can detect and respond to changes in barometric pressure (the amount of air pressure in the atmosphere).”

Also, the joints in our body are filled with a lubricating liquid called synovial fluid, which, along with cartilage, helps the bones of our joints to glide smoothly against one another.  When our joints get cold, this synovial fluid can thicken and become less viscous, making it more difficult to move our joints, causing stiffness and pain. 

So, how do you address increased pain when the weather turns frightful?

  1. Stay Warm – That may seem obvious, but I often find my patients forget to take simple steps, like wearing gloves on their arthritic hands, or putting on a turtleneck to keep their upper body warm.  Consider hot baths or showers to soak away the chill and ease aching joints and muscles.  A heated blanket is another great option to consider at night. A re-heat-able lavender neck-wrap that you can heat in the microwave is another wonderful therapy that is relaxing as well as soothing for an aching neck and shoulders. Arthritis pain typically responds well to warmth, so don’t feel guilty about warming your joints often and keeping them warm.
  2. Stretching – Getting and staying stiff is a recipe for increased pain.  Your dogs and cats stretch multiple times a day, especially when they get up from a nap – why don’t you take a lesson from them?  Stretch before you get out of bed, stretch your calves on the stairs, bend at the waist and drop your hands to the floor to stretch your lower back and hamstrings.  If you don’t know how to stretch what’s hurting, look for the right stretches on the internet.  Simply stretching for a few minutes, everyday can make a huge difference in your pain levels.  Start trying to do so, especially before getting up from sitting for a while or before getting out of the car.
  3. Exercise – “But, Dr. Andrus, it’s too cold outside and you just told me to keep warm!” Turn on the TV, do some yoga or an exercise video, go walk around the mall, go to the gym, bundle up and take your grandkids for a walk outside, even for 10 minutes, but get moving!  Get those joints warmed up and you’ll thank me later!