Arthritis Pain Management in the Winter: The Definitive Guide

Arthritis Pain Management in the Winter: The Definitive Guide

Arthritis is a common condition that refers to inflammation of the joints. There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, and more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some type of arthritis. Women are more likely to get arthritis than men, and arthritis more commonly occurs among older adults, though it can develop at any age.

Many people with arthritis experience more flare-ups during the winter months, due to a variety of factors. The cold temperatures and inclement weather can increase joint stiffness, and many people become less active in winter, which further exacerbates the situation. Combine that with indulgent eating and drinking over the holidays—which can worsen inflammation—and many find their joints aching constantly.

But bad arthritis flare-ups during don’t have to ruin your winter months. Here are 17 strategies that can help you prevent and manage arthritis symptoms during the colder months:

1. Wear extra layers.

Being cold can cause muscle and joint stiffness that worsens your arthritis symptoms and makes it more difficult to move. If you get cold easily, dress warmly and in layers so you can easily adjust your outfit to reflect the temperature. Look for clothes made of thin yet warm fabric that will layer easily; you don’t want your garments to be so bulky that they hamper your movement. 

If you find sweaters itchy, wear a soft cotton shirt next to your skin and then put the sweater on over it. Bring a jacket wherever you go in case the room is colder than expected.

senior woman wrapped in blanket

2. Cuddle up underneath blankets.

Blankets are your new best friends during the winter months. They’re a great way to stay warm and comfy without racking up your heating bill. Invest in several warm throws like Sherpa blankets that are made for snuggling and not just looking pretty. Thick blankets made from fibers such as wool, cotton and cashmere will be the warmest because the fibers trap warm air in the pockets between each other, insulating your body. 

If you get really cold, you can also look into getting an electric blanket or heating pad for your bed to help you warm up first thing in the morning.

3. Try out a space heater.

If a blanket isn’t cutting it or isn’t appropriate for certain situations (like the office), a space heater can help keep you toasty without forcing you to raise the thermostat for the whole house or building. Look for a model that can be set to certain temperatures and times so it won’t just keep running and running if you forget it. Getting a space heater for the areas you spend the most time in, such as the bedroom or living room, is a smart move. Make sure that you don’t leave it running overnight though!

4. Make some home improvements.

If your house is especially drafty, making some home improvements can help keep you warm and, consequently, reduce your arthritis symptoms. Seals can be used to keep hot air from escaping through cracks around windows and doors. If your windows are airtight, but all the glass still lowers the temperature of your house, getting some thick curtains can help improve insulation. 

making home improvements graphic

You can also get your heater, roof and other potential problem areas inspected by a professional. If your heater’s old, you might want to look into upgrading it, though that can be a significant expense.

5. Wear gloves and braces.

Wearing arthritis gloves or braces can help give your joints the support they need. Arthritis gloves promote circulation via mild compression, which warms up your hands, dispels stiffness and helps reduce pain. Arthritis braces are made of stiffer fabric and provide more significant support. This helps promote good body mechanics and keeps you stable, which gives you the confidence you need to keep moving instead of worrying about falling or twisting one of your joints.

older woman holding knee

6. Take a warm bath or shower.

Few things are more comforting than a warm bath on a cold day. You can take one in the morning, if that’s when your arthritis flare-ups are the worst, or do it at night to help you warm up before getting into bed. Make sure to test the water before hopping in: It should be warm but not scalding. 

Not only will the warm water massage your joints and dispel stiffness, but it will also encourage better circulation, which can promote healing and help your body feel more energized. Try not to stay under the water for more than 20 minutes though, as this can dry out your skin.

take warm bath on cold day quote

7. Rub your limbs with lotion.

Once you’ve gotten out of the bath or shower, you’ll want to moisturize your skin to combat the drying effects of water. To get the maximum benefits, warm up the lotion in your hands first and then rub it all over your body. Massage as much of it into the skin as you can, and then let the rest absorb before getting dressed. This movement will help boost your circulation even more, as well as shake out some of the stiffness in your joints. Make sure not to apply too much pressure if your body is already feeling inflamed, though.

8. Get a massage.

If you really want to treat yourself, you can schedule a professional massage at a local spa (this is also a great holiday gift if your loved ones need some ideas for you). A Swedish massage is the traditional base-level package, but you can opt for a deep tissue massage or try out interesting add-ons like hot stones and essential oils. 

If you’re new to massages, it’s best to start out with something less intense to avoid aggravating your arthritis. Some people find deep tissue massage to be very painful, while others swear by it, so know your limits and book a package accordingly. Stay in constant communication with your massage therapist and don’t be afraid to tell them if something hurts.

senior stretching on floor

9. Stretch regularly.

When you’re having a bad arthritis flare-up, the last thing you want to do is move, but stretching can help loosen up your joints and ease pain and stiffness. Make sure to wear loose, stretchy clothes that give you a full range of motion and don’t cut into your body. 

If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, you can stretch lying down, starting with your face and jaw and working down to your toes. The Arthritis Foundation has lots of videos that show you how to stretch properly without hurting yourself.

10. Do indoor workouts.

Just because the weather is cold and inclement doesn’t mean you have to stop working out. In fact, there are plenty of indoor exercise options. You can always walk laps at an indoor mall or do at-home workout videos in the comfort of your own home. If you have a gym membership, now is a great time to use it—and, if you’re a senior, many places offer discounts for older adults. 

Gyms and boutique studios also provide plenty of fitness classes for people of all skill levels, including aerobics, cycling, Pilates, yoga, barre and more, so sign up for some and take a friend to keep you accountable.

11. Eat a healthy diet.

Eating a diet that’s low in fats and high in fiber can help you manage your arthritis symptoms. It will also help you maintain or even lose weight, which puts less pressure on your joints. Watching what you eat can also help you reduce inflammation, which can, in turn, decrease the severity and frequency of your flare-ups. 

asparagus and fish filet

As you eat, also pay attention to what upsets your body and what goes down easily. For example, tomatoes are very healthy, but many people find that tomatoes upset their stomachs and cause inflammation. If you suspect you have a lot of food sensitivities, talk to your doctor about an elimination diet to help pinpoint the exact cause.

12. Stay hydrated.

Among many other things, water cushions your joints and provides extra lubricant as they move around. If you get dehydrated, your body will begin to use up the water it’s been storing, which can give your joints less cushioning. 

To ensure your body stays hydrated, drink plenty of non-caffeinated, non-sugary beverages. Decaf herbal tea is a particularly great choice during the winter months, as it will keep you warm and hydrated at the same time. If you prefer water but don’t like it plain, infusing it with fruit or vegetables can make it more appealing to drink.

13. Get some vitamin C and D.

During the winter, you’re more likely to stay inside, which decreases your levels of vitamin D. If you get a vitamin D deficiency, this can cause physical pain and inflammation. Meanwhile, vitamin C supports the creation of collagen, which is a critical component of cartilage. While the link between vitamin C and arthritis is less clear than the connection with vitamin D, it’s important to get enough nutrients of all kinds. Talk with your doctor if you think you might be deficient in either of these vitamins or other nutrients.

vitamin d supplement shape

14. Try out supplements.

While more research is needed on supplements’ ability to treat arthritis, some patients do report that supplements help with their symptoms. In particular, fish oil and glucosamine-chondroitin supplements are especially popular among those with arthritis. If you’re interested in taking a supplement, talk with your doctor to ensure that it won’t interfere with any of your other medications before you start buying a lot of bottles. Make sure to buy your supplements from a reputable nutrition store and supplier so you know that you’re taking what’s on the label.

15. Use pain relief wisely.

It’s not good to completely rely on pain medication to manage your arthritis symptoms, but taking them occasionally can help you stay functional during especially bad winter flare-ups. After talking and receiving the go-ahead from your doctor, determine if you can use over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e., Motrin and Advil) that can temporarily reduce inflammation and pain, though they won’t address underlying symptoms. 

To avoid negative side effects, take the smallest dose possible for the shortest amount of time: Taking too much acetaminophen at once or over a long period of time can damage your liver, for example. These pain relievers were only designed to be taken in the short term, so use them that way.

experiment with acupuncture quote

16. Experiment with acupuncture.

Acupuncture involves stimulating different points on the body, usually with needles, to relieve pain and treat other health conditions. While the research jury is still out on whether or not acupuncture helps arthritis, anecdotally many people report that the practice has eased their symptoms and reduced inflammation. 

Medicare and Medicaid won’t cover the cost of acupuncture, but many private insurers offer at least some kind of coverage, so contact your insurance company before booking an appointment to see how much it might cost you out of pocket.

17. Watch out for slips and falls.

Arthritis can limit your range of motion, decrease your stability and make you more prone to tripping and falling. Rain, snow, ice and other common types of winter weather also present a fall hazard, which can create a perfect storm (no pun intended) for those with arthritis. When you’re going out, dress for the weather and wear comfortable, water-resistant boots with grippy soles or ice cleats that provide plenty of traction. Watch where you’re going and keep an out for black ice and other hard-to-spot fall hazards. Don’t be afraid to go slow and take your time!

Winter may increase your arthritis symptoms, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fight back. Follow these 17 tips to ease your arthritis symptoms as the temperatures drop.

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