Why Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms Can Be Worse in Winter

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If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you know how painful and stiff your joints can feel. You also probably know that the pain and stiffness can increase in cold weather, particularly if you live in parts of the country that experience long, cold winters. But why is this so? Why are rheumatoid arthritis symptoms worse during the winter and is there anything you can do to help relieve the pain while you wait for warm weather to return?

The Chronic Nature of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease. Inflammation in the lining inside your joints causes swelling, pain and stiffness. However, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect other parts of your body, such as your skin, eyes, blood vessels, and even your organs, like your lungs or heart.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but treatment can help lessen pain and stiffness, and slow down the disease’s progress. However, no matter how well your disease is under control, you may find that cold weather makes your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms worse. You may even feel you can predict the weather based on how your joints feel. There haven’t been many studies looking into the weather-pain connection in rheumatoid arthritis. Some small studies seem to support it, while others are inconclusive.

Possible Causes for More Pain When It’s Cold

Whether studies have proven that cold weather causes rheumatoid arthritis symptoms to worsen doesn’t help you if you find your own pain and stiffness go up when the temperature drops. Even if there’s no scientific explanation for the cause, you can still talk with your doctor about ways to manage this change in symptoms.

Some doctors theorize that pain and stiffness may worsen because of the drop in barometric pressure. The pain and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis is caused by inflammation in the membranes lining your joints. A drop in barometric pressure could cause the tissues to expand, putting more pressure on an already crowded joint. This would cause the pain and stiffness to worsen.

But if the barometric pressure causes body tissues to expand, why doesn’t everyone feel pain—or more pain—when it gets cold? Because barometric pressure doesn’t affect everyone. For example, some people with migraines see their pain increase or worsen when the weather and barometric pressure change, but others don’t.

Another possible cause is how our body responds when we first step outside in the cold. It’s not unusual to feel our bodies stiffen up and remain stiff until we’re back into a warmer environment. The same thing occurs if you’re sitting in a cold home or office. The cold can slow blood circulation and cause muscle spasms.

The experience of pain may also worsen in the cold due to an emotional response to lower temperatures and shorter daylight hours. The winter season can increase depression and feelings of isolation, which in turn may intensify the perception of pain and discomfort from RA symptoms.

Protecting Your Joints in the Winter

Here are steps you can take to help ease the pain or reduce the risk of your arthritis symptoms worsening in colder weather:

  • Wear warm, protective clothing. Layering your clothing is best for warmth. To protect your hands, wear mittens instead of gloves, but if you must wear gloves, look for compression gloves. Protect your feet with warm socks and boots.

  • Use heat packs. Small heat packs in your pockets can keep your hands warm while you are outside.

  • Use heating pads on your sore joints. Be sure to have fabric between the pad and your skin, and don’t use a high enough heat to cause a burn. If you have diabetes, speak with your doctor or diabetes team before using heat on your feet or toes.

  • Move around as much as you can. Exercise can help loosen stiff joints, reducing pain. If you live in an area with ice and snow that make walking outside dangerous, consider joining a gym or indoor activity, like dancing or tai chi. Walking around the mall is exercise too.

  • Look into mood-altering techniques if you find your mood is affected in the winter, which could contribute to more pain. Try using a light for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), meditation, or yoga to keep a calm mind and reduce stress.

You don’t have to dread the winter months with RA. If you find cold weather worsens your symptoms, talk with your doctor about treatments or other lifestyle tips that can keep you moving with less pain all year long.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Nov 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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