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Dr. Ryan Harrell

As an orthopedic surgeon for Novant Health, I treat a lot of patients who say their knee and hip pain gets worse in the winter. While there’s no definitive research on why this happens, here are some common theories in the medical community and some steps you can take to ease the discomfort.

Synovial fluid thickening

Synovial fluid is the lubrication in your joints much like the oil is the lubrication for your engine. Its role is both lubrication and cushioning of the joint. In colder temperatures, it is believed that the synovial fluid thickens. This leads to less cushioning and lubrication leading to stiffness and pain.

Constriction of blood vessels

We know that cold temperatures cause constriction of blood vessels in an attempt to conserve body temperature. The constriction of blood vessels decreases blood flow to muscles and joints. This reduction in circulation may make your joints more prone to pain and stiffness.

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Decreased barometric pressure

There seems to be a link between decreased barometric pressure and achy joints. Some people are more sensitive to changes in barometric pressure during cold and rainy weather. The decrease in barometric pressure leads to expansion of tissue, including muscles and tendons, leading to increased pain in confined spaces such as joints.

Increased nerve sensitivity

Those who suffer from achy joints or arthritis already have sensitive nerves. When you have worn-out cartilage, arthritis exposes more of these sensitive nerves. Cold weather results in hypersensitivity of these nerves, which leads to increased pain.

Higher humidity

The exact reason is unknown but there seems to be a link to higher humidity along with cold temperatures possibly being more harmful to bone and cartilage cells in your joints.

Inactivity

Low-impact exercises have been shown to cause a direct improvement in joint conditions. Our joints need lubrication, which is accomplished through movement. The decrease in activity during the winter months leads to decreased blood flow to the joint as well as stiffness. This can lead to increased pain.

If you are affected by any of the conditions listed above, this list can help you alleviate the pain throughout this winter:

  1. Keep warm: Staying warm may combat some of the aggravating factors that cold temperatures play on joint pain. This includes dressing in warm clothing and layering, using electric blankets and heating pads, taking warm baths or showers and increasing the heat in your car or home.
  2. Stay active: Find ways to exercise in your home to increase circulation, lubricate your joints and increase your flexibility. Exercising on a stationary bike or elliptical machine and practicing yoga are great ways to stay active without putting unwanted impact stress on your joints.
  3. Manage swelling: Swelling can be a direct result of increased inflammation in the joints causing pain. Swelling can be managed with compression stockings or sleeves, over-the-counter neoprene braces, elevation and anti-inflammatory medication.
  4. Improve your mood: Emotional well-being has been linked to decreased pain after joint replacement surgery. Finding activities that improve your mood and make you happy during the cold winter months can help alleviate some of your pain. Also, it’s important to get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  5. Medications: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories or acetaminophen may be necessary to manage your pain. Talk with your doctor to confirm you are taking the correct dosage and frequently enough to help with your symptoms.

If you are still having joint pain or limited function after trying these remedies, I would suggest scheduling an appointment to see us in the office. X-rays will be taken to determine which treatment options will work best for you. We can offer prescription strength medications, bracing, physical therapy, injections or even surgery.

Dr. Ryan Harrell is an orthopedic adult reconstruction surgeon at Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Supply, North Carolina, specializing in treating joint conditions of the hip and knee.