If you have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or another condition that makes your joints sore, cold weather may mean more pain and stiffness than ever.  Many doctors say it's a myth that weather changes cause flare-ups, but many patients say otherwise. If you're among those who can feel the weather in your bones via stiff, achy joints, here's what you need to know about what may (or may not) be causing it and what you can do to loosen up.

People have complained for centuries that their joint pain gets worse when the weather gets cold or stormy.  There aren't many studies that support this claim scientifically, but the ones that do say increased pain could be caused by a change in barometric pressure, constriction of blood vessels or muscle spasms.

  • The same barometric pressure change that causes storms to brew could also cause increased pressure in the synovial fluid that surrounds the joints. This could increase pressure on the bones and cause pain.
  • Blood vessels in your extremities constrict during cold weather as a way to shunt blood to the body's core to stay warm. This could cause decreased circulation, especially in your hands and feet, which could, in turn, cause pain.
  • Cold weather may also cause muscle spasms around affected joints.

While doctors don't have a lot of in-the-lab evidence to support these theories, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence.  Many patients come to their doctors with increased joint pain due to cold weather and their doctors often prescribe heat (which is, of course the opposite of cold weather) to alleviate the pain.  Try these tips to warm your bones:

  • Warm up before you get out of bed with an electric heating pad.
  • Use moist heat applied with warm wet cloths, which patients say is more effective than the dry heat of heating pads.
  • Purchase gel wraps at your drug store or make your own by filling an old sock with dry rice and heat it in the microwave.
  • Purchase an inexpensive paraffin wax warmer (sometimes used for manicures) and dip your hands or feet in the warm, melted wax. You can dip several times and peel off the cold wax when you're feeling less painful and more flexible.
  • Drink warm liquids to heat your body from the inside out.
  • Take a warm bath or sit in the hot tub
  • Try a sauna or steam bath
  • Flex and bend your stiff joints gently before stepping out for your day.
  • Sleep with an electric blanket
  • Pre-heat your car (or get someone else to do it for you)

Once you're warm, start exercising. Exercise is key to keeping your joints lubricated with synovial fluid and keeping muscles and ligaments flexible. Even a few hours of exercises spread out through your week will can keep you warm and limber on your coldest, achiest days.  Flex and bend your achy joints gently several times before you start vigorous exercise.  Start every workout with a warm up session and finish with stretching.


National Institutes of Health

When the Weather Gets Cold