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Are your joints achy this winter?

| Healthy You | Chronic Conditions | Aging Well

A person's palm held under running water over a sink

Arthritis can feel worse in cold, damp weather. See if these 12 tips help you feel better.

If you have arthritis, you know that winter can make your joints feel stiffer and achier.

“Damp, cold weather can lead to a change in barometric pressure that can increase the perception of pain in your joints,” said Kathleen Fitzgerald, MD, a rheumatologist at PeaceHealth. Hmm…maybe there’s a reason that retirees from colder parts of the U.S. choose to spend time in hotter, drier climates in the winter.

Arthritis affects about 24% of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While it’s most common in older people, arthritis can affect young people as well.

There are different types, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout and osteoarthritis, caused by or related to trauma, genetics, autoimmune disease, overuse and aging.

Regardless of what type of arthritis you experience, there are several things you can do to combat wintertime aches and pains in your joints.

If you’re under the care of a physician or if you’re taking medications or supplements, be sure to talk with your doctor about whether these tips would benefit you.

1.    Keep moving. Low-impact exercise such as walking, yoga, tai-chi or simple movement throughout the day can keep your joints from stiffening up. It can also improve your range of motion, strength and balance. “If it has been a while since you exercised, take it slow and don’t overdo it,” said Dr. Fitzgerald, “if you feel pain, stop.”

2.    Make sure you get enough vitamin D.  Research shows that vitamin D reduces inflammation and helps the immune system ward off disease. Ask your doctor about checking your body’s vitamin D levels. If you’re low, your provider may recommend a daily supplement.

3.    Apply heat and/or cold. Both heat and cold packs can be helpful in arthritis. “In the morning, try running warm water over your hands. It will help relax muscles, tendons and ligaments around the joints, and open blood vessels to promote blood flow to muscles,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. Heat also helps with gout as it discourages the formation of crystals that concentrate in areas that tend to be cold (e.g. big toe). Cold packs can be used to numb sore areas and reduce inflammation, swelling and pain.

4.    Consider a mild pain reliever. Over-the-counter pain relievers work to reduce inflammation. Many can be taken by mouth, but there are also creams that can be rubbed into the skin around the affected joints. Talk to your doctor about whether these would be right for you.

5.    Consider turmeric. A recent study showed that about 1500 mg per day can be helpful with arthritis—reducing inflammation, which, in turn, can ease pain. “You can add it as a supplement or a powder in foods. I use it in my smoothies,” said Dr. Fitzgerald.

6.    Consider fish oil. As with some of the other supplements, fish oil has anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce pain and stiffness in your joints. “For my patients with rheumatoid arthritis, I recommend 2,000-3,000mg per day of fish oil,” noted the doctor. Talk to your doctor about what might be right for you.

7.    Drink plenty of water. On average, our bodies are around 60% water. It makes sense that drinking water would have a variety of benefits, including, among other things, the lubrication of joints, removal of toxins and reduction of inflammation, said Dr. Fitzgerald. “It’s especially important if you have gout as the intake of water can reduce the formation of crystals that cause pain.” In general, “plenty” means about eight 8-ounce glasses per day. Filtered water is best. If plain water sounds boring, try it hot or with a bit of flavoring (sprig of mint, cucumber slices or a wedge of lemon).

8.    Keep a food journal to identify “trigger” foods. “A lot of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis ask if they should avoid nightshade foods as they’ve heard these can trigger attacks,” noted Dr. Fitzgerald. “I encourage them to make a journal and see what foods—if any—trigger an attack. Everyone’s genetics are different so your reaction to different foods may be different.”

9.    Limit the amount of “added sugar” you eat. Speaking of “trigger foods,” sugar and foods loaded with “added sugar” tend to make inflammation worse. Try going sugar free for a few days (or longer) and note whether it seems to make a difference. Learn more about "added sugar" and natural alternatives in this webinar.

10.  Limit your salt intake. Salt and salty foods can cause your body to retain fluid and raise blood pressure. And like sugar, salt can promote inflammation. See if you notice a positive change in how your joints feel when you watch your salt intake.

11.  Eat whole plant foods or follow the Mediterranean diet. Studies have shown the positive effect of following the Mediterranean diet, which calls for lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, seeds, some fish, some poultry and olive oil. These foods have anti-inflammatory properties. The high fiber content also helps prevent overeating, which can also lead to weight loss and better weight management. These can all help reduce pain in your joints. For more information, check out this webinar on the Mediterranean Diet.

12.  Try intermittent fasting, if your doctor says it’s okay for you. “So far, the data from research have been very encouraging about the benefits of intermittent fasting,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. Among other things, going a few (or several) hours without eating appears to speed metabolism, reset the immune system and reduce inflammation. Learn more from this article on fasting. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether and how fasting might work for you.