Well… we are in the middle of winter and the temperatures don’t seem to be rising any time soon. The short days, frosty mornings and icy winds are unfortunately all part of winter in Melbourne. For most of us, the cold is just annoying because it makes our morning commute uncomfortable and makes sitting in the outer at the ‘G unpleasant. However, for 1 in 5 Australians that suffer with arthritis, this time of year is also associated with a reported surge in their joint pain. In today’s blog, we will look at some studies performed on this topic and the physiological and psychological explanations behind some common theories relating to arthritis pain and cold weather.

Changes in temperature

A recent survey conducted found 80% of arthritis sufferers found their pain worsened with colder weather.

Many arthritis sufferers swear by the fact they can predict a drop in the mercury, simply by the increase in swelling and pain in their joints.

Some studies have shown a variety of weather factors can increase pain, especially falling temperatures, and falling barometric pressure (the force exerted by the weight of the atmosphere).

One study in 2007 found that every 10-degree drop in temperature, corresponded with an incremental increase in arthritis pain. More recently a 2015 study by Timmermans et al found a definite association between pain and daily average weather conditions. However, they failed to show any link between day-to-day weather changes and joint pain, nor could they prove the mechanism behind the change in pain levels. Researchers suspect certain atmospheric conditions increase swelling in the joint capsule and hence put pressure on nerves that control pain signals.

Nervous system reacts to the cold

Another reason for the increase in pain may be due to misbehaving nerves. A view from many pain scientists is that the body changes – triggered by cooler weather – may be amplifying pain signals from the nerves in our joints.

Dr Vagg, a clinical senior lecturer at Deakin’s School of Medicine and pain specialist with Barwon Health believes that our nervous system is essentially ‘misbehaving’; pain signals travelling along nerves from the joint are amplified in the brain by signals carried on separate nerves called ‘sympathetic nerves’. When it’s cold, these nerves work to help constrict blood vessels in the limbs to minimise heat loss, keeping our vital organs warm (which are in the core of our body). It’s this activation of the nerves around arthritic joints that he believes may be responsible for the increased sense of pain.

Psychological

As we have discussed in our previous Men’s Health Week blog, there are many psychological benefits of exercise for the mind.

In the study by Timmermans et al 2015, 67 per cent described themselves as ‘weather sensitive’ ie the weather influenced their arthritis pain. Weather-sensitive people experienced more joint pain than non-weather-sensitive older people with arthritis. Women and more anxious people were more likely to consider themselves as weather-sensitive. Interestingly, they also found older people with arthritis from Italy and Spain were more likely to report weather sensitivity than those from Sweden! This suggested a cold or damp climate did not necessarily increase someone’s weather sensitivity.

The finding that anxious people were more likely to be weather sensitive is of interest. Timmermans et al. suggest that, because arthritis often alternates between variable length periods of stability and flare-up, the uncertainty about the recurrence of pain may lead to anxiety. The researchers think consequently, more anxious people with arthritis might be more likely to report weather as a pain-generating factor than less anxious people.

Dr Vagg proposes a drop in our mood relating to the shorter days and cold weather which comes in winter may be linked with higher levels of perceived pain. It is this lack of sunshine, which generally lowers people’s moods, that might be responsible for the increase in perceived pain.

What we do know

Whether it be physiological, psychological or both, the jury is still out on whether cold weather makes arthritic joint pain worse and if so, how. As physios, what we do know is that there is plenty of supporting evidence for exercise and its benefits in managing arthritis. If you need some extra motivation or tips on exercising in winter, be sure to revisit our blog, Top 7 Tips for Exercising in Winter!