Spine & Sport: Arthritis wakes up in winter weather

Physiotherapist Kimberly Read offers some tips for easing the pain of arthritis when the weather cools down

As the cold weather starts, a lot of people experience more aches and pains from arthritis. It is best to try to stay active over winter rather than hibernating!

It can be difficult to keep up your activity due to increased pain levels, but it is important in long-term pain management. If you don’t stay active, you become weaker, which leads to increased pain as the muscles are less able to work efficiently, therefore putting more stress on your joints.

There are a few ways to help these aches and stay strong — movement and stretching, keeping warm and activity modification.

It is important to keep arthritic joints as flexible as possible. If the muscles become tight, this can place more strain on certain areas of your joints, increasing pain and contributing to arthritis getting worse. Wherever your arthritis pain is, you should have some stretches to do for that joint. If you are unsure of how to stretch, please consult a health professional and they will be able to show you some stretches. As a general rule, you should perform three to five repetitions of each stretch, holding for 30 seconds each time. Ideally you should stretch every day, but definitely aim for three times a week or more.

You may need to change the types of exercise that you do over winter in order to keep your joints warm and flexible. People often prefer to exercise indoors when it is cold and snowy outside. This may include such things as walking indoors, going to the gym, and exercising in the pool. If you find that you are particularly sore in cold weather, remember to do low or no impact exercise such as walking, swimming or using the exercise bike.

If you would like to continue your exercise outdoors the most important thing is that you keep your achy joints warm, make sure you dress with plenty of layers. A light neoprene brace for knees, ankles, wrist, elbow, shoulder may also help to keep joints warm and a nice side effect is that they will also give the joints some support. Keeping this warmth in will help to keep muscles flexible and may help to reduce pain from arthritis.

Often winter also brings activities that can be tough on your body such as shoveling snow. With these activities it is important to pace yourself and take regular rests where possible. While this results in the task taking longer, you will usually find that you recover more quickly and will experience less pain. Even if it means having just a five-minute rest for every 15-20 minutes of work. The “resting” time may also be a great way to give yourself some time to do those stretches! It can also be helpful to try out different types of equipment for those winter tasks, as different tools can make life easier on certain parts of your body.

If in doubt about any activity, ask your doctor or another health professional —because anything you can do to maintain some level of activity over winter should help with maintenance of strength, and in the long term should result in decreased arthritis pain.

Kimberly Read is a physiotherapist at Spine & Sports Physical Therapy and Massage Therapy, North End location in Vernon, B.C.