winter scene

Here’s an excerpt of a recent article I contributed to on how healthcare providers can offer support and guidance to people coping with winter weather and arthritis (click here to access the article). We don’t yet have a good scientific understanding about why some people experience more pain when the weather changes. In fact, this is a topic that many patients have asked us to study within ArthritisPower. Existing research shows that it’s not necessarily a specific climate (e.g., cold and damp) that causes pain, but rather a change in the local weather. Regardless of where people live, they adjust to their climate but may notice weather changes if they are susceptible to weather-related symptoms flare. Whether or not your flares are related to the weather, the onset of colder weather is a great time to seek advice from your healthcare provider to create a winter weather arthritis management plan. As we find ourselves in the midst of deep winter, consider investing in essential gear and plan to stay active in spite of freezing temperatures.

Cold Weather Gear for Arthritis Patients
It’s essential to wear warm layers of clothing that allow you to keep moving. Getting dressed during periods of flare ups can be exhausting, so choose clothing that’s designed for both functionality (e.g., ease of opening and closing) and durability (weather protection). Applying heat to joints that are covered by sparse soft tissue (e.g., hands and feet) can have substantial benefit to arthritis patients.  However, self-treating joints and muscles with heat (or cold) needs to be done cautiously and with guidance from a physician.  According to a 2014 study, hand symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and swelling improve substantially when therapy gloves are used, though improvement in hand function (with the exception of grip strength) is usually minimal.

Winter Weather Exercise
Exercise is crucial for people living with arthritis, especially during winter. On days when sidewalks are clear of ice and the sun is shining, walk outside to soak up some vitamin D. Here’s why this may be especially important. Studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D are correlated with more severe clinical manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis and other rheumatic diseases.  Low levels of vitamin D are also associated with sensitivity to pain and a higher risk of developing brittle bones associated with osteoporosis.  (You should still wear sunscreen to block harmful U.V. light.) If you are unable to go outside, taking a vitamin D supplement and eating a healthy diet rich in vitamin D are good alternatives.

Winter Weather Chores
Work and chores don’t stop when the weather turns cold. Driveways, stairs and sidewalks need to be de-iced and shoveled. If paying someone else to clear snow is not an option for you, there are ways to ensure that you can tackle outside chores, like shoveling, safely. First, choose a sturdy, non-plastic shovel with a soft grip that is the right length for your height. To protect your back, lift the shovel load with your legs and continue shoveling smaller amounts throughout the day so the snow won’t get too deep. Similarly, if you are carrying wood or other heavy gear, seek out assistive devices made for the job or recruit friends or family members to help.

Use Your Resources
As with any exercise and activity, you should consult with your healthcare provider before making a big change. Providers should be prepared to discuss suggested modifications to help you do the outdoor activities you need to get through (and enjoy) the winter. Personally, outdoor chores—like shoveling my parents’ driveway in the Wasatch Mountains—seems a lot less daunting when I know I can come back inside after and cozy up to a steaming cup of tea or cocoa.

William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR Whether Weather Affects Arthritis, MedicinetNet, retrieved on 11/29/16
Brian Krabak, M.D and Evan Minkoff, DO, Rehabilitation Management for Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients, John Hopkins Arthritis Center. Retrieved om 11/29/2016
Arthritis Pain Dos and Don’ts. Mayo Clinic. Retrived on 11/29/16
Siti Hana Nasir, Olga Troynikov, and Nicola Massy-Westropp, “Therapy gloves for patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a review” “Ther Adv Musculoskelet Dis. 2014 Dec; 6(6): 226-237. Doi: 10.1177/175972oX14557474 PMCID: PMC4239152
Ishikawa LL1, Colavite PM2, Fraga-Silva TF2 et. al., Vitamin D Deficiency and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2016 Aug 2. [Epub ahead of print]
Glover TL1,2, Horgas AL1, Fillingim RB2,3 et al. Vitamin D staus and pain sensitization in knee osteoarthritis: a critical review of the literature. Pain Manag. 2015;5(6):447-53. Doi:10.2217/pmt.15.43. Epub 2015 Sep24.
Safe Snow Shoveling. National Independent Health Club Association. Retrieved on 11/29/16
Ortho Info. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Retrieved on 11/29/16