Michael M. Kheir, MD, orthopedic surgeon, researcher and assistant clinical professor at University of Michigan Health System, Northville. UOFMhealth.org
It’s not in your head—many people with arthritis, chronic joint pain or joint injuries experience increased pain in their hips, knees, spine, hands and shoulders when the seasons transition. Good news: You can prepare those joints for colder weather by strengthening them while the weather is still warm.
What causes seasonal pain: Colder weather causes an increase in humidity and a drop in atmospheric pressure. When the pressure drops, the soft tissue in your joints expands, causing pressure in your joint capsule and pain in already problematic joints. In winter, you also may notice joint pain not just when you wake up but also in the evening, when the pressure is the highest due to the dropping temperature. The tendency to exercise less when the weather’s cold also works against you.
If you go into winter with added strength, you’ll have less inflammation and pain…and your joints will warm up faster. Start prepping now, regardless of the temperature. Here’s how…
Train, don’t strain. You don’t need a special fitness program, just a consistent one with low-impact exercises that won’t tax achy joints. Swimming is ideal—the buoyancy of the water cushions joints and takes away gravity, relieving the pressure you might feel with land-based workouts, plus it targets the muscles supporting upper-body joints. Aquatic exercises and therapy, such as treading water and doing short laps, also are good for cardiac health. Try walking from side to side in the pool—just being in the water will take pressure off your joints.
Other low-impact activities include biking, walking, yoga and tai chi. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise a week in the form of five 30-minute chunks, but you can exercise in 10-minute chunks if that’s more comfortable for you. Your joints eventually will feel better, and you will have more mobility and less stiffness. Caution: You may feel a little discomfort when exercising, but significant pain is your body’s way of telling you to slow down.
Work with a physical therapist for a plan tailored to your needs. This could involve light weights or resistance bands, particularly for upper-body joints that don’t get any stimulation from walking or biking. Find a therapist who is willing to motivate and push you. The point of physical therapy is to build up the muscle around the joints to stabilize them and restore normal biomechanics, as well as improve range of motion.
Start slow. Don’t push yourself more than you can handle the first month.
Find an accountability partner or support group. Doing things together sometimes can be more motivating.
Have a daily to-do list, and place “Exercise” at the top. Make it part of your routine. Listen to podcasts, music or news while you exercise.
Strengthening your joints now doesn’t mean that you’ll be completely free from pain later, but developing the habit can encourage you to continue year-round with modified versions that will keep pain at bay.
Reminder: When pain flares, try soothing remedies such as wearing extra clothing layers to keep joints warm and placing a heating pad around stiff joints when they need a boost.