Updated 06 July 2020

Why your joints hurt in winter – and what you can do to keep them healthy

Stiff, creaky fingers and toes in the cold? You are not the only one.

  • Joint pain can be caused by chronic conditions but can often occur just because of the cold
  • The exact link between cold weather and joint pain is not fully understood
  • Joints can be kept healthy with exercise and a healthy diet

Stiffness, aches, and pains in your joints can be caused by a variety of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, breakdown of the cartilage after an injury, or inflammation of a tendon.

But if your joints are stiffer than usual, or if you’ve been experiencing niggles in your fingers and toes, it could be because of the drop in temperature.

 According to Dr Kenneth Chakour, an orthopaedic surgeon from the University of Chicago who specialises in comprehensive joint health, suffering from achy joints during winter is quite common, but the exact link between cold weather and joint conditions is not fully understood. Some people are just more susceptible to joint pain during winter than others.

One theory suggests that a drop in barometric pressure can cause your tendons, muscles, and tissues to expand, which can cause joint pain, especially if you already suffer from underlying conditions such as arthritis.

Luckily, there are some tips on how you can manage your niggling joints in winter:

1. Rule out underlying conditions first

Joint pain can be caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout. While these conditions are not life-threatening, they are considered chronic and can be debilitating if not managed properly.

To rule out any other conditions, consider your family’s health history. Ask whether any other family members are prone to arthritis and consider your own overall health, age, and weight to determine if you are at risk. Keep track of when the pain occurs. Is it mainly at night, and does it get better with home relief? If you are in consistent pain, if there is any swelling, redness, or fever, or if you are struggling to move, you should consult your doctor.

 2. Eat to help curb inflammation

Joint health can be improved by what you eat. Some joint pain can be caused by increased inflammation. By cutting out foods that are prone to cause inflammation, such as sugar and alcohol, you can reduce the pain. Foods that fight inflammation include omega-3-rich foods such as nuts, seeds and oily fish, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and kale, berries, turmeric, garlic and onion.  

3. Keep warm

Sore, uncomfortable joints can be temporarily relieved by applying heat pads to the affected areas. You can also keep your hands warm during the day by wearing fingerless gloves, especially if you do a lot of work on the computer.

4. Use topical treatments

The joints of the hands are very close to the skin, therefore topical treatments may offer quick relief.

If you experience pain in your fingers and hands, use topical creams, gels or balms with ingredients such as eucalyptus oil, cinnamon oil, or menthol. These ingredients are known as counterirritants and provide a pleasant warming or cooling effect to the skin to help distract you from the pain. Ask your pharmacists what type of topical ingredient may be best for you as some ingredients such as menthol can cause skin irritation. Read the instructions carefully and only use as directed.

5. Move more

Exercise may be the last thing you want to think about during the colder months, but it can be beneficial in two ways. Not only will regular exercise help you to maintain a healthy weight to avoid increased pressure on your joints, but exercise may also help relax and move stiff joints and help build up muscle and bone strength.

READ | 7 everyday things that can damage your joints 

Image credit: Kristen Vogts from Pexels


Ask the Expert

Arthritis expert

Professor Asgar Ali Kalla completed his MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1975 at the University of Cape Town and his FRCP in 2003 in London. Professor Ali Kalla is the Isaac Albow Chair of Rheumatology at the University of Cape Town and also the Head of Division of Rheumatology at Groote Schuur Hospital. He has participated in a number of clinical trials for rheumatology and is active in community outreach. Prof Ali Kalla is an expert in Arthritis for Health24.

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