It’s almost officially winter here in Colorado, and, as we have more cold days, we hear from many Parker residents whose knee pain (or other joint pain) consistently feels worse as temperatures drop. If this feels like you, you’re not imagining things. Many people who suffer from knee pain report worsening symptoms – including stiffness, pain, and tenderness when the weather turns cold. But why is this? And what can you do about it?
How (and why?) does the weather impact knee pain?
Or any joint pain for that matter? While it’s true that many people – in particular those with arthritis – report worsening knee pain when it’s cold out, a change in the weather doesn’t increase pain for everyone and there is no single answer for why this may occur.
There are, instead, several reasons that can pain from an existing knee issue can feel worse when it’s cold. The change in barometric pressure, cold weather’s impact on blood and other fluids in the joints, or even seasonal affective disorder (SAD), may contribute to the increase in joint pain this time of year.
To better understand these factors, let’s first look at some of the primary underlying causes of knee pain.
Underlying causes of knee pain
There are many causes of chronic knee pain, but two of the most common impact millions of people each year:
Injury or overuse: Many people have recurring pain from a past injury (even one that has healed) or from a history of heavy impact or use over time. This pain can occur as a result of damaged tissue within the joint, scar tissue, or the deterioration of tissue that would otherwise cushion the joints. Colder weather may cause joint stiffness and reduced blood flow to the joints in your extremities as the circulatory system focuses on keeping your body’s core warm when the temperatures dip.
Arthritis: Osteoarthritis is a very common condition where the as cartilage that serves as a cushion between the joints gradually wears down. This is especially common among older adults. Other forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are autoimmune diseases that cause inflammation and ultimately tissue damage – both of which can result in joint pain. Changes in barometric pressure may cause swelling in the knee joint which can contribute to knee pain.
What can I do to reduce my knee pain?
The right knee pain treatment varies depending on the underlying cause, so you should seek the advice of an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist to find out what treatment options are the best fit. If you have chronic knee pain that worsens in cold weather, there are a few things you can do that can minimize the impacts of the cold:
Stay active: Even though it’s tempting to stay inside and do less on colder, darker days, try to resist. “Staying active year-round is a good way to build strength in the larger muscles that surround and support your joints,” says Dr. Dane Swinehart, knee specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Advanced Orthopedics. “Being active also helps you maintain range of motion, improve flexibility and get your blood moving.”
Wear proper cold weather attire when spending time outdoors: Cold legs can lead to more stiffness and higher risk of injury. Bundle up for outdoor conditions and be sure to properly warm up before starting a strenuous activity.
Heat it up: Applying a heating pad or taking a warm bath can counteract the cold and ease your pain. Athletes may consider treating their knee pain with heat as part of a pre-training or competition regimen.
Minimizing pain and maintaining your mobility during colder months can be a challenge for many people, but these tips can make a big difference. However, if your pain is disrupting your daily routine or getting worse, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.
Dr. Dane Swinehart is one of the specialists at Advanced Ortho who uses advanced arthroscopic procedures to treat knee pain and injuries. He also does cartilage restoration of the knee, complex knee and shoulder reconstruction, and primary and revision shoulder replacement. Learn more about his expertise or book an appointment.