Many people living with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) say that their stiffness and pain flare up in winter and seek pain management services to ease these issues. However, experts are not quite sure why or how weather impacts RA.
As per the Arthritis Foundation, about 1.5 million people in the United States suffer from RA. This autoimmune disorder occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues. This condition can affect joints on both sides of the body, including joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles. It can also damage a wide variety of non-joint structures such as the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, kidneys, salivary glands, nerve tissue and blood vessels. Both men and women can be affected, but RA is more common among women.
Does RA really act up in cold weather? According to a WebMD article, research suggests that while autumn may be the sweet spot for RA, winter and spring are the most challenging. A study published a few years ago in Reumatologia Clinica reported that RA patients saw a 16% increase in flares due to cold weather. However, though there is lack of sufficient scientific evidence to prove that RA gets worse in winter, the Arthritis Foundation notes that that people who have any of the most common types of arthritis may experience more pain during the cold winter months because atmospheric conditions increase swelling in the joint capsule.
Strategies to Ease RA Pain
If your RA acts up in winter, try these simple but effective strategies to keep joint pain at bay:
- Layer up: In winter, you need to dress to avoid hypothermia. Layering your clothing comfortably and wearing clothes loosely creates pockets of air between them which gets heated by your body temperature. When you go outdoors, wear comfortable clothes and warm socks, gloves, and a hat or beanie to keep your entire body warm. You can add or subtract layers based on your activity level and changes in the weather. Experts recommend starting with a thin synthetic layer, then a layer of fleece, and finally a waterproof, breathable outer layer.
- Exercise regularly: The Arthritis Foundation cautions that lack of activity can cause the joints to become stiff. Exercise eases arthritis pain, increases strength and flexibility, boosts energy, and improves overall quality of life. Joint pain and stiffness is usually at its worst when you wake up. Don’t let this affect your workout. You can take your walk when the temperature gets warmer and your joints have loosened up. Exercising later in the day will also give your pain medications time to work. Low-impact exercises such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing are also easy on the joints. Putting your clothes in the dryer for five minutes will warm them before your workout. Use solid, supportive shoes with good treads and stay away from slippery surfaces. Compared to running shoes designed for walking and running on the road, trail shoes provide greater grip and stability. If the weather is too cold, exercise indoors. Stretch before exercise or physical activity to prepare your muscles and joints for the activity.
- Stay hydrated: It’s important to drink plenty of water. Research has found that even mild dehydration can increase arthritis pain. Your joint cartilage is mostly composed of water, and staying hydrated will make movement easier. Moreover, you can sweat and lose fluid when you workout in cold weather. So stay hydrated before, during and after exercising.
- Take your medications as prescribed: Prednisone, a corticosteroid used to treat RA, reduces pain and inflammation. According to 2004 study conducted at the University of Pavia in Italy, about 60% of RA patients experienced a flare when tapering off prednisone. Topical pain relievers can help with joint pain. Avoid situations that might expose you to infection and illness and stay home if you feel ill.
- Avoid sunburn: RA patients may take NSAIDs or methotrexate which can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. Such patients and those who have conditions like psoriasis or lupus should wear appropriate sunscreen on exposed parts and also protect their eyes with sunglasses.
- Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids: The body uses UV light to synthesize vitamin D. So long, dark winter nights mean we lose our most important source of vitamin D, which is crucial for strong bones and joints. If experience more joint pain than usual in winter, try eating more food rich in vitamin D. Eating foods with the right kind of fats is also important. Foods like oily fish, like mackerel and salmon have plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce joint swelling and pain.
These strategies can ease RA pain and allow you to enjoy the winter season to the fullest. However, if your pain becomes unmanageable, you can always approach a reliable multispecialty healthcare center for a solution. For instance, healthcare centers in Brooklyn offer a slew of nonsurgical pain management options for various musculoskeletal conditions, including physical therapy and chiropractic care. Physicians will conduct a comprehensive evaluation and provide treatment and valuable recommendations to help you manage your arthritis pain.