As temperatures continue to drop and snow begins to turn the ground white, winter brings extra aches and pain to people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). For many, the long hours of darkness may diminish one’s desire to be active. I know that the cold, dark, gray atmosphere often makes me want to crawl under a thick quilt and not come out until spring is blooming. But hibernating is not really practical unless you are a brown bear.
Surviving winter is about more than keeping warm taking extra pain medication, it is about being proactive and keeping ahead of the dangers and/or negative effects of winter.
Although I just said that winter is about more than keeping warm, doing so seems to be the one thing that helps me to stay mobile and active during the winter months. When it’s cold outside, keep yourself warm by wearing appropriate outer gear and undergarments.
Gloves vs. mittens.
Avoid gloves that are too tight as they can restrict blood circulation and aggrevate Raynaud’s syndrome. Consider wearing mittens instead. Mittens allow your fingers to warm each other and provide extra room in which you can insert disposable "hand warmers" to keep arthritis joints warm and toasty.
Long Johns and Spanx.
Keeping muscles warm helps to reduce excess pressure on joints caused by cold, stiff, or tense muscles. My favorite long johns, made by Cuddleduds, are soft and silky. Another trick that is new to me is wearing Spanx undergarments, not only for the support, but for the warmth they provide. Various items of Spanx may serve as pseudo-compression garments that help to keep swelling at a minimum in joints such as knees.
Too easily, people can become less active during the winter months; however, immobility works against RA. Muscles contribute to the strength and stability of joints and need regular activity to stay healthy. Stretching and gentle range of motion exercises are essential. Exercise can decrease RA pain by keeping joints and cartilage healthy, while also helping to reduce symptoms of depression which are common during the winter months.
Swimming in a heated pool is great exercise and may be soothing to joints. Swimming during the winter months can also help you get out of the house and stay active. Just be sure to thoroughly dry off after swimming and bundle up in warm clothing before going back out into the cold to avoid tense muscles and extend the benefit of spending time in the warm water.
Snow and ice.
To prevent frost from forming on your car’s windows, spritz the outer surface of the window with a mixture of 3 parts vinegar and 1 part water once you are done with errands for the day. To make snow shoveling easier, spray your shovel with aerosol cooking spray beforehand to help the snow glide right off.
Wet conditions of winter can be treacherous and we want to avoid falling to reduce the risk of injury. Wear sturdy, supportive shoes with good tread (sometimes tennis shoes are the worse shoes to wear on slippery surfaces) and try to avoid walking on ice. You may be better off walking through fresh snow, providing natural traction. Also, ask your doctor about obtaining a ‘handicapped’ parking permit to allow you to park closer to your destination and consider using a mobility aid such as a walking cane for the added stability.
Rest up and relax.
Take it easy when you feel overworked and try to adjust your activities before you detect the onset of fatigue. A tired body is generally weaker and may put you at risk for injury. Get plenty of sleep each night, not only to generally feel better, but to improve pain levels and mood. During the holiday season, finding down time to relax is an essential tool to staying healthy, along with eating well and getting enough exercise.
Hydrate and moisturize.
Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated from the inside out. Protect your skin by keeping it moisturized. As a musician, it is important that I keep my lips, part of my playing instrument, soft and supple by locking in moisture. I like to use plain vaseline or A+D ® Original Ointment as Chapstick makes my lips feel dry.
Avoid getting sick.
Watch out for sick people and avoid physical contact or being in close proximity if possible. Never eat or drink after another person. If you are at a party and you’re not sure which cup was yours, get another one. Wash your hands often with soap and water and/or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (which can also double as a de-icer for the car door lock).
Take medication as prescribed.
Finally, don’t forget to take your medication as prescribed. Talk to your doctor about the need for different or additional pain medication to get you through the cold, achy months. When you travel, don’t forget to pack your medications in your carryon bag, both for easy access and as protection against loss. Make sure you also ask your doctor and pharmacist about which over-the-counter medications are okay to take in addition to your prescribed medications.
Have fun and watch for longer days to come.
Enjoy the winter holiday season If you are like me and enjoy the longer days of summer, find comfort in the knowledge that from December 21 and beyond, the days will continue to get slightly longer and longer throughout the cold, winter months.
Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to health care conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.