The winter months can be a pain in more ways than one. Apart from the disruption that cold and rainy weather often brings to our daily routines, many people report that their musculoskeletal (MSK) issues such as back pain and knee pain feel worse in cold weather conditions.
Whether it’s a stiff joint, torn muscle or achy neck from too much screen time in a chilly office, there are many studies showing the association between MSK pain and lower temperatures. A European study across six countries revealed that 67% of people with pain reported that the weather influenced their levels of pain. A further study showed that rates of neck and back pain amongst construction workers increased in colder weather.
Did you know? The Arthritis Foundation found that every 10-degree drop in temperature corresponds with an incremental increase in pain amongst people with arthritis.
The science behind MSK pain in cold weather
Despite extensive scientific research, there is no definitive explanation for the increase in pain that many people experience when the temperature drops. However, there are a several potential physiological, behavioural and psychological causes of MSK pain in cold weather:
- In cold weather, more blood is pulled towards your vital organs such as your heart and lungs. As a result, there is less blood flow to your muscles and they become more tense, putting more strain on your musculoskeletal system.
- When your muscles tighten following cold exposure, it may limit the distribution of important nutrients to non-heat-generating cells in your body.
- The elasticity of your tendons decreases in cooler weather, making you more prone to injury.
- Most body fluids tend to thicken in colder temperatures, including the shock-absorbing fluid (synovial fluid) in your joints. This increase in synovial fluid viscosity can make your joints feel stiffer.
- People tend to be less active in cold weather and stay indoors more. Long periods of inactivity can weaken muscles and cause joints to become less elastic.
- Many people experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in colder weather, sparking feelings of depression or sadness. This can impact your perception of pain and make you more attuned to any issues you already have.
Did you know? Findings from studies that focused on specific events or periods with extreme temperatures suggest a mortality increase of 8·9–12·1% during heat waves and 12·8% during cold spells.
How to reduce your pain in cold weather
There are some simple things you can do to combat cold weather aches and pains:
- Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water to keep your joints hydrated and your blood volume steady.
- Keep warm – in a cost of living crisis it’s not always possible to keep the heating on all day, but dressing in layers and adding extra layers to pain-sensitive joints can help keep your muscles warm and reduce pain and stiffness.
- Keep moving – it may be tempting to stop exercising when it’s cold outside, but staying active will help you maintain the strength and flexibility of your joints and muscles.
- Stretch and warm up before exercising – when the weather dips it becomes even more important to stretch and warm up your muscles to your core temperature before exercising.
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