Why Do Old Injuries and Joints Hurt When It’s Cold?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Everyone experiences aches and pains from time to time, whether from playing sports, over-exercising, or accidents that have caused long-term trauma. Old injuries and joint pain can flare up intermittently or regularly, making everyday activities difficult.

Unfortunately, the possibility of experiencing painful joints and muscles increases with age. This can be attributed to general wear and tear as well as the increased probability of developing a joint condition such as arthritis and other common diseases that can be hard to treat effectively.

While painkillers can alleviate symptoms of these conditions, they can also produce additional problems. Many medicines come with a risk of side effects or can lead to complications, such as stomach inflammation and digestive tract bleeds. Be sure to read the labels of over-the-counter painkillers and ask your doctor before taking any new medication.

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However, it is not only injuries, wear and tear, and diseases that cause painful muscles, joints, and bones. Other factors, such as the weather, can ease or increase the discomfort that many people experience in their joints.

How weather affects joints and bones

Everyone is affected by the weather to a certain degree. The sun can lift your spirit and ward off depression, while the gloom and cold of winter can lower your mood. You may also find yourself feeling healthier during the summer months because of the extra daylight, which allows you to be outdoors longer.

However, it is not just your mood and emotional well-being that is affected by weather conditions. You may also find that your joints and bone health are influenced by different types of weather.

The main culprit behind pain in joints and bones is usually the cold. The link isn’t completely clear, but low temperatures can cause muscles to tighten as they respond to the cold environment, putting extra pressure on bones and joints. A lot of pain is related to tight muscles, which are more likely to spasm, further adding to pain and discomfort.

Scientists believe that barometric pressure also plays an essential part in the pain cycle.

It is thought that people with arthritis are especially sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. This may be because arthritis causes the cartilage that protects bones and joints to become worn down, allowing sensitive, exposed nerves to be more affected by atmospheric pressure changes. In addition, low temperatures can cause the fluid inside the joints of people with arthritis to thicken, leading to stiffness that can also aggravate these nerves.

Weather also affects joints and bones in a far simpler way. In summer, most people are more active, which helps exercise joints and keep them flexible. However, you probably spend more time indoors and hiding from the elements in the winter. This can cause painful joints and bones in even healthy individuals, as inactivity allows your joints to stiffen.

What weather changes can cause pain and stiffness?

Sometimes atmospheric pressure changes rapidly. Storms bring drops in pressure, and this sudden change can increase pain. Even the humidity that comes along with stormy weather can affect susceptible joints. The rise in temperature and the inability of your body to cool down quickly in high humidity can lead to inflammation and fluid buildup in diseased or injured joints.

A man with weather-related joint pain in his hands

Extreme temperature changes in spring can also cause pain and stiffness. For example, if one day it is snowing, and the next day it has warmed up, muscles and other joint tissue can shrink and tighten and then relax rapidly. This puts stress on the body and results in discomfort.

Are some people more prone to weather pains than others?

For people who are fit and healthy, with only mild joint pain or injuries, the chances of experiencing weather-related pain are minimal. However, if you have sustained more severe joint injuries, you are more susceptible to weather-related pain.

This also applies to older people or those with long-term health conditions, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis. When your body ages, your joints do as well. The aging process affects the muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bones. Over time, all these components weaken and wear away, leaving behind stiffened and less flexible joints that are more prone to injury, tightness, and pain.

Over time, injured joints and bones may become permanently weakened and more sensitive to environmental influences.

If the healing process has created a buildup of scar tissue, this can cause increased tightness in the joints during winter, as the scar tissue reacts to cold temperatures and hardens further.

Some people with multiple sclerosis are highly sensitive to pressure changes and can experience anxiety and headaches when a significant flip in pressure occurs. Cold conditions are also known to decrease blood circulation in these individuals, which can lead to pains in the joints of the feet and hands. On the other hand, high temperatures can also increase pain and illness in many people with multiple sclerosis.

People with arthritis often mention that their condition worsens during winter and eases somewhat during the summer. This is likely because their bodies’ oversensitive nerves are reacting to extreme drops in temperature and pressure.

How to reduce pain in cold and wet weather

For people who experience more pain during cold and wet weather for any reason, winter can be a depressing and challenging season to get through. Unfortunately, you cannot control the temperature. But is there anything else that you can do to ease the pain?

People doing yoga to improve joint pain

Depending on what ailments are causing your joint discomfort, it may be helpful to stay active by utilizing light exercise indoors and away from the cold and damp conditions. Nearly any exercise can keep joints flexible and ease weather-related pain and stiffness. However, depending on your condition, it may be smart to keep exercise light to avoid aggravating the condition further. Gentle stretching can help relieve tension in painful joints and muscles.

Staying warm can also bring relief. Wearing extra layers and keeping your home at an appropriate temperature are a few great steps to take. Warm drinks and food are also very soothing when it is cold outside.

If your doctor says it’s okay, you may want to try some supplements, such as fish oils, that can help lubricate the joints. These oils also have anti-inflammatory properties.

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Some people believe that essential oils can also be beneficial for treating injuries, joint discomfort, and bone pain that flare up during cold and damp weather. Some helpful oils may include rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, bergamot, ginger, and lemongrass. Essential oils are typically applied externally to the affected area or used in aromatherapy.

Final thoughts

The link between pain and environmental influences is a complex subject that is still being scientifically scrutinized. Extensive research has already been carried out, and scientists continue to look for general patterns in the link between pain and cold weather. It is becoming clear that cold and damp weather conditions do generally lead to increased pain in those with pre-existing joint injuries or illnesses.

Cold weather is the main culprit, and this is because of how human tissue reacts to lower temperatures. Extreme cold causes tissue and muscles to shrink and tighten, creating extra pressure within the affected joints themselves.

This reaction also affects nerve endings by making them more sensitive. Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the sensation of pain. People with arthritis and those who have sustained severe injuries are hit particularly hard by this phenomenon.

Whatever form of medical treatment you choose, your doctor may also recommend keeping active or doing some gentle exercise, as this helps to keep joints flexible and prevents further stiffening. This approach to weather-related pain can hopefully see you through the season until spring bursts into life once more.

August 26, 2022