If you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis, you know the symptoms: tender, warm, and swollen joints, stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity, fatigue, fever and loss of appetite. You might also have noticed that these symptoms can get worse as the weather gets colder, particularly if you live in parts of the country that experience long, cold winters. To find out why this happens and how to manage your symptoms when it does, read our latest blog post below.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a chronic inflammatory disease. It is also an autoimmune disorder, which means that rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body’s tissues. This condition causes inflammation in the lining of the joints, which leads to swelling, pain, and stiffness. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
Why Does Cold Weather Affect RA?
While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, treatment can help lessen pain and stiffness and slow down the disease’s progress. However, no matter how well you may be managing your disease, you may find that cold weather makes your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms worse.
While researchers have demonstrated in clinical studies that fluctuations in temperature or barometric pressure can have a very real effect on joint pain in arthritis patients, they are still working out the exact reason for this phenomenon. For patients with arthritis the cold, damp weather can not only increase stiffness and joint pain it can also lead to increased anxiety, depression and isolation. Knowing when to seek professional help is an important factor in maintaining long term joint health and overall wellness.
How to Protect Your Joints in Winter
There are a number of lifestyle ways you can help protect your joints even as cold weather approaches.
- Stay warm. Wearing protective clothing in layers can help you to keep your body warm even in cold temperatures. Take care to add extra layers to particularly sensitive areas, like your knees and elbows. It can also help to wear gloves and warm socks or boots. Some patients find relief by using heat packs, or by swimming and soaking in a hot tub or heated pool.
- Hydrate & eat a healthy diet. Some foods can cause some people with arthritis to experience a flare-up of their symptoms. Support your body’s health by eating a healthy diet and drinking lots of water.
- Stay active. Exercise is one of the best ways to deal with arthritis. It not only increases your strength and flexibility, it can also boost your energy levels while helping to ease the pain. The Arthritis Foundation recommends adults with arthritis with no other severe health conditions engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week and two strength-training sessions a week.
- Get your vitamin D. Vitamin D is usually produced when the body is exposed to sunlight. During the winter months, when levels of sun exposure drop, it’s very important that you get enough vitamin D, as patients with rheumatoid or other inflammatory arthritis show more severe pain if their vitamin D levels drop. Both women and men should aim for 600 IU of vitamin D daily, either with supplements or through foods like fortified cereal or cod liver oil.
Medications for Winter Arthritis
While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, clinical studies indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with medications. Talk to your doctor about possible medication interventions.
- Painkillers. Painkillers are commonly prescribed to help patients manage their pain, but they will have no effect on treating overall inflammation. Painkillers range from over-the-counter options like Acetaminophen (Tylenol) to prescription opioids like Tramadol (Ultram), Oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone) or Hydrocodone (Hysingla, Zohydro ER) that are used to treat more severe pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs work to reduce both pain and inflammation. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and Naproxen (Aleve), while prescription NSAIDs include Meloxicam (Mobic) and Celecoxib (Celebrex). Ask your doctor about NSAIDs that are available as creams or gels, which can be rubbed on painful joints.
- Counterirritants. Some varieties of creams and ointments contain Menthol (Bengay) or Capsaicin (Capzasin), the ingredient that makes hot peppers spicy. These may help with pain by interfering with the transmission of pain signals from the joint itself.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Often used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, DMARDs slow or stop your immune system from attacking your joints. Examples include Methotrexate (Trexall, Rasuvo) and Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil).
- Biologics. Typically used in conjunction with DMARDs, biologic response modifiers are genetically engineered drugs. They work by targeting various protein molecules that are involved in the immune response. There are many types of biologic response modifiers, including Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, Etanercept (Enbrel) and Infliximab (Remicade).
- Corticosteroids. This class of drugs, which includes Prednisone (Prednisone, Rayos) and Cortisone (Cortef), reduces inflammation and suppresses the immune system. Corticosteroids can be taken orally or can be injected directly into the painful joint. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you don’t have to dread the winter months. Talk with your provider about what steps you can take to protect your joints and promote your health, no matter the temperature.