9 Tips for Managing OA in the Winter
Winter is coming. But your joints (and the Starks) knew that. More than half of people living with osteoarthritis (OA) say cold weather affects their pain. It may feel worse or “deeper” than usual—like it’s in your bones, says Spencer Stein, M.D., orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. As temps fall and air pressure drops, the pressure inside your joint may go up, causing pain. Plus, cold muscles around the joint can be tight and stiff, increasing pain and making it harder to move, Dr. Stein says. Read on for tips on managing OA in the winter.
Wear Compression Clothing
These are clothes made to fit tightly around the skin, like leggings, tights, or even long johns, says Rachel Frank, M.D., orthopedic surgeon at UCHealth, in Denver, Colorado. They’ll keep you warmer than looser-fitting clothing like sweatpants, “where the wind just goes right through them,” Dr. Frank says. Plus, compression has been shown to reduce inflammation—in the same way it helps when you wrap a sprained ankle or sore knee. And less inflammation means less pain.
Talk to Your Doctor About NSAIDs
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—like naproxen or ibuprofen—can be super helpful for treating OA. But don’t just pop them willy-nilly. Talk to your doc about finding out if a “maintenance dose” is right for you—a small, fixed dose that you take on a regular basis (versus intermittently) to help manage OA pain during a flare, Dr. Frank says. For example, your doctor might recommend taking an NSAID (either over the counter or prescription) several times a day for three to four weeks. Ideally, take NSAIDs with food to reduce the risk of upsetting your stomach, advises Dr. Frank.
Consider a Steroid Injection
For very painful, swollen joints, a steroid injection can provide quick relief that lasts weeks to months—maybe just long enough to get you through the winter, Dr. Frank says. After cleaning the injection site, your doc injects the steroid directly into your joint. The whole process takes less than a minute. “You can go back to household activities, doing a workout, or whatever you want the same day or the next day,” Dr. Frank says. Steroid injections can be administered up to three or four times per year, even for very severe bone-on-bone OA.
Take Your Body for a “Tune-up”
Physical activity often dips during colder months, potentially leading to muscle imbalances—when a muscle on one side of your joint is stronger, weaker, or tighter than the muscle on the other side. This is a known cause of musculoskeletal pain. A physical therapist can help you identify imbalances and recommend exercises to correct them—so you move better and have less pain. Book a session or two at the start of the winter season, advises Dr. Frank. If your PT offers virtual therapy, you won’t even have to leave the house! Check with your health insurance provider to see if it’s covered.
Ask Your Doc About Vitamin D
A 2019 study review in the journal Nutrients found supplementing with vitamin D may improve joint pain in OA patients with low levels of the nutrient. And because vitamin D from sunlight is less accessible during the shorter, darker days of winter, the risk of D deficiency goes up. Talk to your doctor about having your vitamin D level checked. If it’s low (below 50 nmol/L, according to that study), taking a D supplement may help prevent pain.
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
People tend to drink less when they’re cold, risking dehydration, Dr. Frank says. But staying hydrated is crucial for both your overall health and for the production of synovial fluid, which cushions and nourishes your joints and is mostly water. When you’re dehydrated, your body shuttles fluid to the vital organs first, so your joints get shortchanged, Dr. Frank says. Plus, when the muscles around the joint dehydrate, they become tight and cramped, increasing pain and stiffness, adds Dr. Stein. Try a hydration drink, such as Pedialyte or Liquid I.V. Hydration, Dr. Stein suggests. The tiny bit of electrolytes (sugar and salt) help your body absorb the water.
Watch Your Step When It’s Slick
OA can make it hard to move, impairing balance and increasing fall risk. In one Arthritis Care & Research study, people with hip or knee OA experienced 50% more falls than those without hip/knee OA—and the risk went up with the number of joints affected. Icy, snowy conditions don’t help. Always wear shoes with good traction, even if you’re just taking out the trash or heading to your mailbox, Dr. Frank says. Stick to well-lit areas, and don’t be afraid to lean on a buddy (literally) for extra support. And see that physical therapist, okay? A PT can suggest exercises to improve balance.
Try Heat Therapy
In cold weather, muscles can become tight and stiff. And because the muscles move the joints, this can make your joints feel stiff and painful too—as if a tight rubber band is wrapped around them, Dr. Stein says. Heat helps muscles relax and loosen up, relieving pain and making movement easier. Take a warm shower. Or place a heating pad on your painful joint for up to 20 minutes. Pro tip: Set a timer so you don’t fall asleep and risk getting burned, Dr. Stein says.
Movement helps loosen muscles and activates synovial fluid, bathing the joint in this natural lubricant, Dr. Stein says. For indoors, an under-desk pedal exerciser (such as an elliptical or cycle) is a great option, he says. If you’re heading outside to exercise, warm up indoors first—walk around and/or do some sit-ups—for 15 minutes. Then put on your winter clothes about five minutes before heading out to trap your body heat, Dr. Stein says. Aim for 150 minutes (five 30-minute sessions) of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
Cold Weather and OA: BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. (2014). “Self-perceived weather sensitivity and joint pain in older people with osteoarthritis in six European countries: results from the European Project on OSteoArthritis (EPOSA).” bmcmusculoskeletdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2474-15-66
Vitamin D and OA: Nutrients. (2019). “Vitamin D in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoarthritis: From Clinical Interventions to Cellular Evidence.” mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/2/243
Fall Risk and OA: Arthritis Care & Research. (2014). “Lower‐Extremity Osteoarthritis and the Risk of Falls in a Community‐Based Longitudinal Study of Adults With and Without Osteoarthritis.” onlinelibrary.wiley.com/resolve/doi?DOI=10.1002/acr.22499
Exercise for OA: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. (2019). “Effects of Physical Activity in Knee and Hip Osteoarthritis: A Systematic Umbrella Review.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31095089/