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Does arthritis get worse when the seasons change?

November 7, 2022 • read

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Does arthritis get worse when the seasons change?

If your arthritis symptoms seem to change with the weather, you’re not imagining it. And unfortunately, the colder months tend to be the worst for many. Here’s how seasonal changes can impact your arthritis and what options you have for treatment if you’re living with arthritis.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is an uncomfortable and often painful condition that affects your joints and tissues. And, it’s not just one disease. Arthritis is an umbrella term for multiple conditions that reduce movement and cause swelling, pain, and inflammation in the joints.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of arthritis, Maple can help. Maple is a telehealth provider that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer. With Maple, you can connect with a doctor to discuss your arthritis symptoms and help develop a treatment plan.

There are more than one hundred different conditions that fit under this arthritis umbrella. The most common kind, osteoarthritis, causes the cartilage in your joints to break down. This is sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis and most commonly affects the hands, hips, and knees.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another common form of arthritis. It’s an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own tissue, and is characterized by chronic pain and inflammation. RA typically causes inflammation and damage in the joints.

This is most common in the small joints in the hands, feet, and wrists, but it can also impact shoulders and knees. Often, RA affects multiple joints at once, although it can also cause issues in the skin, eyes, blood vessels, and organs.

How do I know if I have arthritis?

The first sign of arthritis is usually joint pain. You may also experience stiffness, swelling, and a reduction in the range of motion of your joints. RA pain is chronic and often causes unsteadiness or feelings of being off-balanced. It may also lead to joint deformities.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Starting treatment early will help you to preserve joint function and prevent further damage and pain.

To confirm the diagnosis, your healthcare provider will likely ask more questions about your symptoms, including whether the pain wakes you from sleep or gets better with movement throughout the day. They’ll also want to examine your joints and can order additional testing, including X-rays, to see if you have joint damage or bone issues.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend an MRI to see if inflammation — a frequent marker of arthritis — is present in the joint. Ultrasound is another tool that can assess the health of your joint ligaments, tissues, tendons, and bones.

Additionally, your healthcare provider may test your blood, urine, and joint fluid. Individuals with certain kinds of arthritis often have elevated levels of proteins and other biomarkers in their blood and urine. If your tests indicate the presence of these biomarkers, and you have a history of chronic pain, there’s a good chance you have the disease.

How does the weather affect arthritis, and is arthritis seasonal?

You may not believe your great-aunt when she says her hip knows if rain’s on the way. But the seasons can affect your arthritis, and many people find that their symptoms change depending on the weather.

Temperature, air pressure, humidity, and activity level can all play a role in your arthritis symptoms. But, not everyone has the same triggers. Some find that exercising in hot and humid weather is much more likely to cause them to swell up, while others swear that the cold has the worst effects on their condition.

Why does cold weather affect arthritis?

Cold air is denser than warm air, which is why people talk about the barometric pressure dropping when it gets cold. You know this intuitively when you’re in a house with more than one floor — the upper floors are always warmer than the lower ones because the warm air rises and the cool air sinks.

A drop in bariatric pressure usually kicks off wet weather as well. And, studies show that bariatric pressure is a variable in worsening arthritis. One theory is that the lower air pressure that comes with cold weather also means more force against your joints. Since individuals with arthritis have less cartilage to cushion their joints, they’re especially susceptible to these changes in the air pressure.

Whatever the reason, winter brings a double whammy as arthritic pain levels also increase as the temperature dips. This is likely due to the increase in the protein TRPA1— a pain sensor — that cold weather brings on.

Compounding the issue is that you’re less likely to exercise in the colder months. Exercise is a great tool for improving mood and coping with arthritis symptoms, and avoiding it is likely to make your pain feel worse.

What season makes arthritis worse?

While many find that winter is the worst season for their arthritis, summer can also be a doozy. Both seasons see increases in air pressure — summer from the hike in humidity and winter from the cold.

And, while winter’s temperature drop may increase your pain sensitivity, summer may cause more swelling in your joints because of the heat.

These variables make many unsure whether summer or winter is worse for their condition. What does seem to be clear, however, is that warm and dry weather tends to be the best for it. This means that late spring and early fall are generally sweet spots for arthritis.

How do I manage arthritis pain when it’s cold?

Finding the best treatment for your arthritis depends on what type of arthritis you have. Taking over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medication for your arthritis can help you manage your pain symptoms during the colder months, but a number of non-medication options may also help.

Practices including exercise, manual therapies, ultrasound, and stress-reducing mindfulness meditation have shown promise in reducing chronic pain symptoms.

Simple activities like relaxing in a hot bath or shower can also help to keep your joints limber and warm them up. And, using a hot water bottle or an electric blanket are additional ways of providing heat therapy to affected areas. You can even sleep with them to leave you less stiff in the morning.

If you’re struggling to manage your discomfort, work with your healthcare provider. With so many options to choose from, they can help you find a treatment plan that will work for you and your particular type of arthritis.

How can you prevent arthritis when it’s cold?

It’s not always possible to prevent all your arthritis symptoms when it’s cold outside. But there are things you can do to help. Here’s how.

1. Stay warm. Protect your hands, feet, and head by making sure you dress warmly when you venture out. Wear gloves or mittens that actually keep your hands warm, and don’t be afraid of long underwear and extra socks so that your body heat doesn’t escape easily. If you find yourself getting too toasty, you can always peel off a layer.

2. Stay hydrated. It seems simple, but drinking enough water is a powerful tool when it comes to arthritis prevention. Maintaining appropriate water levels in the body helps to ensure your joint — or synovial — fluid stays hydrated, reducing the friction between your bones.

3. Maintain a regular exercise regime. Exercise is crucial for bone and joint health. It increases the strength of the muscles around your joints, helping to take the pressure off these junctions.

Additionally, physical activity reduces pain intensity and improves balance, flexibility, cognition, and mood. It also reduces inflammation, which can go a long way toward preventing painful arthritis flare-ups in the winter.

To reap the most benefit from this, warm up before you start by stretching. Ease yourself into new routines, and aim for joint-friendly activities if you have severe arthritis. This might mean walking, swimming, and hot yoga instead of running a marathon or playing squash.

4. Maintain a healthy weight. The heavier you are, the more pressure you put on your joints — especially your knees and hips. For joints that are already struggling, any extra weight can cause an increase in pain.

Fat tissue isn’t just about weight, however. It releases compounds that contribute to inflammation, making your arthritis symptoms that much worse. Fat matters so much to this disease that it contributes to about one-quarter of all arthritis cases.

5. Help keep inflammation under wraps. Small lifestyle changes can make a difference when it comes to addressing inflammation in the body.

For example, incorporating omega-3 into your diet may help keep swelling under wraps. Not only is fish a great way to eat healthy, but it’s also an excellent source of these healthy fats. However, they do come in supplements if you prefer.

And, in case you’re looking for another reason to quit smoking, know that it doesn’t just cause cancer, but it also contributes to inflammation in the body. Butting out can help to reduce pain and future degeneration of the cartilage.

What’s the best medication and treatment for arthritis?

OTC medications can come in handy for occasional arthritis flare-ups. If you experience the odd bout of pain as the seasons change or after a particularly inactive day, for example, then ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), ASA (Aspirin), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help to dull that. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and ASA are all anti-inflammatories too, so they can also help to soothe inflammation.

Additionally, you can try a topical ointment or cream. There are a few different brand names on the market, but their active ingredients are typically capsaicin or salicylate. However, these medications don’t work immediately and may only start to be effective after weeks of use. They may also cause burning, itching, or other skin irritation.

Prescription medications for arthritis offer a few different options. Your healthcare provider may recommend a prescription for an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like celecoxib (Celebrex), diclofenac (Voltaren), or meloxicam (Mobic). NSAIDs come in either tablet or topical forms and are great options as they both counteract inflammation and address pain sensations.

Corticosteroids are another prescription medication commonly used for arthritis. Along with NSAIDs, these are good for short-term use but not recommended over the long term because of side effects.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are most commonly prescribed for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. There are a number of different kinds of DMARDs, all of which slow or stop inflammation that triggers joint pain, prevent joint destruction, and preserve joint space and prevent bone-on-bone pain. As a side-effect, however, they do make you more prone to infections.

A new category of DMARDs is available that provides more targeted treatment. Known as targeted synthetic, or small molecule DMARDs, these treatments don’t pose the same risks regarding infection vulnerability. They’re only approved for specific use cases at the moment, however.

Some individuals also rely on medical cannabis to reduce pain and help them sleep. While anecdotal evidence may support this practice, more research is needed to confirm the full range of effects cannabis has on arthritis.

How Maple can help with seasonal arthritis

While you might be able to manage your condition normally, changes in season might mean an increase in pain and inflammation and a decrease in your range of motion. If you find that the seasonal shift corresponds to an increase in your arthritis symptoms, you could probably benefit from medical support.

Connecting with a doctor on Maple means that you can discuss your arthritis symptoms within minutes, from the comfort of your home. If appropriate, the doctor can provide you with a prescription for your arthritis-related symptoms or refer you for additional testing.

If your arthritis is affecting your quality of life, don’t wait. Get in touch with a doctor today for help soothing your pain and inflammation.

​​This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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