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How Cold Weather Affects Osteoarthritis

12th November 2020

By Harry Andrews, Physiotherapist, Oakwood Physiotherapy Clinic

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative condition that affects normal functioning within the joints, leading to symptoms of pain, stiffness and loss of range in movement. Progressive degenerative changes can be identified throughout various stages of OA. Joint space narrowing, osteophyte formation and poor joint nutrition typically catalyse a vicious cycle that can accelerate various deterioration pathways and painful symptoms.

Multi-faceted factors, such as the following increase the prevalence of OA:

  • Previous trauma/injury
  • Occupational and work exposures
  • Physical activity
  • Limb-length inequality
  • Strength and somatosensory dysfunction
  • Joint alignment
  • Abnormal joint forces and bone characteristics
  • Joint shape

OA is the most common type of joint disorder in the current world population, affecting vast amounts of individuals on a daily basis. One-in-five adults over the age of 45 years old are estimated to have OA. Recent studies suggest that age, gender, race/ethnicity, genetics, osteoporosis, obesity and nutrition can be categorised as systematic risk factors for onset of OA.

The total cost of OA to the UK economy is estimated at 1% of annual gross national product. In 1999/2000, 36 million working days were lost because of osteoarthritis, costing the economy nearly £3.2 billion in lost production. Recent figures estimate that a singular knee replacement surgery alone could cost between £8000-£15,000.

Patients with chronic joint pain frequently report worsening of their pain and stiffness due to changes in the weather. Patients who are known to have arthritis and live in colder climates have been shown to report more pronounced symptoms than those living in warmer areas, despite similar pathologic diagnoses.

It has been suggested that approximately 80% to 90% of patients with arthritic disease could be sensitive to cold weather and falling barometric pressures in the presence of humidity. Various researchers have strived to source a clear mechanism between climate and osteoarthritis, with some researchers suggesting cooler temperatures may catalyze degenerative changes due to an increase in joint stiffness.

Further studies theorise that greater stress placed on thermoregulatory and immune systems could deplete energy stores, decreasing physical exercise and daily activities.

Patberg et al. [10] performed a prospective study on 88 patients with OA, patients were selected randomly from an outpatient’s department with ages ranging between 30 years to 68 years and an established disease of five years to 30 years’ duration with 90% being seropositive. The patients were given diaries to record their pain levels at different timings of the day for the duration of one whole year. The results of this study showed that an increase in humidity and drop in barometric pressure produced increased arthritic pain, swelling and stiffness in patients with established arthritis.

The effect of temperature changes localised to the joint has been shown by increased stiffness at lower temperatures and decreased stiffness at higher temperatures. The latter effect probably accounts for the subjective benefit derived by arthritic patients from localised heat remedies. The contention that a significant part of the stiffness measured at the joint is attributable to the joint itself might be supported by these results.

Local temperature changes in the joint produce clear changes in stiffness, joint mobility and ultimately increased pain. Given this information, it is important to combat the cold weather this winter and proactively follow some of the tips below to prevent common exacerbations of pain, stiffness and swelling:

  1. Our first tip is to wrap up warm with plenty of layers! This sounds simple, but wearing a variety of layers may be the key to prevent cold weather affecting your joints.
  2. Keep active. Staying mobile will ensure your joints have healthy blood flow to prevent stiffness and swelling from congregating around those weary joints.
  3. Improve muscular strength. By strengthening the muscles around your arthritic joint, you will provide structural support to the joint, which can reduce deterioration. Joint surfaces almost act in a similar way to a sponge; therefore, loading a joint with a heavier than usual weight facilitates the removal of inflammatory chemicals.
  4. Find the root cause. Try and identify activities in your daily life that may aggravate symptoms of arthritis, most specifically outdoors! This may be as simple as completing outdoor tasks, such as gardening, on a cold day and then again on another day when the weather improves.
  5. Plan your day - ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail!’ Ensure you have proactively assessed the weather for the following day and plan tasks to avoid being caught out in the cold.
  6. Utilise a flask. Having a warm drink to hand during the cold months may decrease the stress on the thermoregulatory center, potentially decreasing pain from osteoarthritis and increasing your core body temperature.
  7. Seek treatment. As technology continues to rapidly improve within healthcare, it may be relevant to seek external therapies, such as shockwave therapy, k-laser, acupuncture and hyaluronic acid injections to manage your painful symptoms.
  8. Get to the root of your osteoarthritis. MBST continues to successfully stimulate the healing process and regenerate the cells affected in osteoarthritis. Numerous cross sections of joint surface cartilage following MBST continue to display improvements in the strength and durability of the tissue, ultimately leading to decreased pain and improved joint biomechanics.

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