It’s suddenly a lot colder outside, the days are shorter and if you are anything like us then your heating will be well and truly back on. It’s official, winter is here. Some things are a cert each winter; the coca-cola advert will be defrosted for its annual TV appearance, Mariah Carey will still only want you for Christmas and our Physiotherapists will hear the question “my joints seem to ache more in winter – is that even possible?”

In short, the answer is yes but it’s not quite as black and white as that. There are a combination of reasons as to why people experience more pain during the colder winter months – especially when the temperature drops as it does here in Belfast.

The colder temperatures increase the experience of pain for many underlying conditions, and particularly for arthritic conditions. At Smart Physiotherapy, we know that many of our clients relate to arthritic knees, feet, hands and necks feeling stiffer and aching more during the winter months.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are small things you can do to counter the pain.

Barometric (air pressure) and temperature drops affect tissue elasticity and mobility

Connective tissue properties can undergo subtle changes in elasticity and mobility with temperature and barometric drops. We know it’s maybe not the best comparison but think about how the hinges on a wooden door expand and become stiffer with seasonality, it’s a bit like that.

Colder temperatures can affect joint capsule and ligamentous tissues, making them temporarily less supple. The increased stiffness can lead to experiences of pain in joints, essentially making simple movements painful. This one is easily addressed though, ensure you wrap-up warm, make use of heat packs and stay as active as you can to counter this.

Poor weather leading to low mood and sadness, and increased pain experiences

Recent studies on pain have demonstrated that our experience of pain is directly related to our mental state and in a year of heightened anxiety, we get it.

When we are feeling sad, anxious or stressed we are more likely to perceive higher levels of pain in our bodies. When we are relaxed, supported and happy, we perceive less pain. During winter we spend more time indoors, getting less exposure to sunlight, feeling saddened by the cold, dark, wet weather. In a normal winter we typically reduce our physical activity levels and social interactions, and this will be accelerated further by social distancing and lockdown restrictions this year.

All of these factors can result in lower moods and lead to an increased perception of pain. Whilst Covid-19 will be a hurdle in overcoming some of these obstacles, there are still things that you can do.

Make sure to get out and about as much as possible, stay active and do things that make you feel good. As discussed in our last blog, make use of Facetime and other communication channels to maintain contact with friends and family, an easy way to boost mood.

We move less due to bad weather

Inclement weather limits outdoor exercise participation and mobility. We cancel our weekend walks, we stay in bed longer and we are all guilty of swapping fitness classes/gym sessions for the warmth of the house.

With local and national lockdowns resulting in multiple openings and closures for gyms and studios, it can be difficult to settle into a routine. Additionally, with the majority of us working from home, we don’t even have the luxury to take a walk out of the office at lunchtime.

It’s no secret that both healthy bodies and arthritic joints need regular movement and exercise to stay mobile and strong. Often our aches and pains in winter are the body’s way of telling us to get up and move more. So, if your back is aching from being hunched over the kitchen table working, get off the couch, put on a warm coat and hat, and head to the park for a walk. Join an online fitness class or throw your headphones on and go for a walk to call that friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while – two birds, one stone.

Past experience of painful winters

Sometimes people experience anxiety about past pain experiences during winter and as we discussed earlier, this year has certainly been challenging on the mind.

Similar to the point above about pain and mental state, the anticipation of pain is enough to sensitise the brain and neural pathways involved in pain perception. Functional MRI studies of the brain have shown that thinking about pain activates the same areas of the brain that are active when we are actually experiencing physical pain.

Whilst it would be great to say ‘don’t think about it and it won’t happen’ we know that’s not quite how things work. So, try mapping out an exercise plan early on this year. Stick to your fitness routine where possible and make sure you move as much as possible this winter.

What can I do to manage the pain?

Firstly, you can feel relieved that you are not imagining this – the increased pain you feel in winter is real and you are certainly not alone. You can be reassured that it is most likely due to the reasons above, rather than any new damage or injury.

Try wearing heat-retaining supports, using heat packs, visiting heated pools swimming pools, taking a spa break (ask Santa) and booking regular physiotherapy appointments to keep those joints mobile.

Participating in regular exercise is important – so stick to a scheduled class, routine or partner-based activity that will make sure you get out of bed and outdoors! Also making sure you remain socially active, see friends and family, and participate in activities that make your soul feel good are important for maintaining good mental health.

As always, our doors are opened and we are open for physiotherapy treatments. To find out more about our services, get in touch with our Belfast physiotherapists today.

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