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Cold Weather Comfort Tips for Osteoarthritis Spine Pain

Published February 25, 2020
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff   | Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Bjerke, M.D.

Many people with osteoarthritis of the spine see a worsening of their symptoms in rainy or cold weather.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis caused by a breakdown of the cartilage that protects the ends of your bones, including the vertebrae of the spine. In addition to the spine, this condition also often affects the hands, knees and hips.

While the research on how many people are affected is mixed, Dr. Nikhil R. Nayak, a neurosurgeon with Virginia Neurosurgeons in Arlington, Virginia, says, “It's probably much more common than people think.”

However, when the temperature drops in the winter you may notice an increase in pain, stiffness or tenderness in your back. These symptoms are related to the joints and surrounding tissue.

But Nayak says cold weather shouldn’t affect the spinal cord or nerves in the spine. So keep an eye out for warning signs.

“Radiating arm or leg pain, muscle weakness and other neurological symptoms may indicate a more serious structural issue and should be evaluated by a physician,” he says.

Does cold weather affect osteoarthritis?

There is some research to support the connection between the weather and osteoarthritis symptoms, but it is not conclusive.

A 2014 study of 222 people with hip osteoarthritis found that both humidity and barometric pressure affected people’s symptoms. However, the effect was small.

Another study in 2007 showed that each 10°F decrease in temperature was linked to a small increase in knee pain in people with knee osteoarthritis. Increases in barometric pressure was also linked to greater pain.

Other studies, though, haven’t found any effect of weather on osteoarthritis symptoms.

Some researchers have suggested that the small (or no) effects could be due to the way pain is reported by people in the study.

However, for many people with osteoarthritis, the effect of weather on their symptoms feels very real. In a 2014 European study, two-thirds of people with osteoarthritis perceived that weather affected the severity of their pain.

In this study, people who lived in the warmer regions of southern Europe were more likely to be weather-sensitive than people from the colder northern Europe.

Why weather affects osteoarthritis symptoms

Weather doesn’t cause osteoarthritis and there’s no evidence showing that it can worsen the damage to the cartilage on the bones.

But Nayak says scientists have proposed several reasons for how cold weather might worsen osteoarthritis symptoms.

One possible explanation is that an increase in barometric pressure might also increase the pressure inside the joints themselves. The increased joint pressure might be responsible for the pain, stiffness or tenderness in and around the joint.

The spine has two types of joints — the facet joints that connect the bones of the spine in the back, and the spinal disc in the front of the spine.

Another possibility is that in cold weather, the synovial fluid in the joints becomes denser and less like a fluid. The job of the synovial fluid is to lubricate the joints. When the fluid stiffens, it may make it harder for the joint to move. As a result, the muscles around the joint would have to work harder too.

“When people tense and stiffen their muscles during cold weather to preserve or generate body heat,” says Nayak, “the muscles can develop strain, which may worsen musculoskeletal pain and muscle spasms.”

There may also be a psychological reason for the increased symptoms in cold weather.

“Shorter days and cold weather often negatively affect our mood and decrease our activity,” says Nayak. Both of these can reduce the body’s production of endorphins, hormones that help reduce pain. “In general, when people are more active, they feel better,” he adds.

Finding winter relief from symptoms

Whether the connection between osteoarthritis symptoms and the weather is scientifically true or not, here are some tips to help you find relief when the joints of your spine act up in winter.

Dress warmly

As your grandmother may have told you many times, when the temperature dips down, bundle up. Nayak says this will help keep your muscles and joints from becoming overly tense.

Dressing in layers can also make it easier to stay comfortable if it warms up a little or if you are more physically active outside.

Stay active

“Typically the pain that osteoarthritis causes is worse in the morning but tends to ease once you are up and moving,” says Dr. Niccie Dearing, a chiropractor with Vitality Chiropractic in Gaffney, South Carolina. “This is why doing some form of exercise is so important,” she adds.

Exercise also boosts the level of endorphins in your brain. This helps ease some of your osteoarthritis symptoms.

However, Nayak says, “It takes more mental planning and commitment to keep exercising during the winter.” So try picking a regular time each day to get outside for some physical activity. When you plan ahead like this, you’ll be more likely to stick with it.

Exercise indoors

Don’t let cold weather keep you from being physically active. Find a gym, mall or other indoor location where you can exercise, play sports, swim, go for a walk or do whatever activity fits your needs.

Warm up and stretch

“When performing physical activity in the cold weather,” says Nayak, “whether it is skiing or shoveling snow, make sure to stretch before and after to reduce the chance of injuries to muscles, tendons and ligaments.”

Get regular chiropractic care

More studies are showing the benefits of chiropractic care for back and neck pain, including when it occurs because of spine osteoarthritis. This is one that Dearing recommends throughout the year to people with osteoarthritis.

However, its effects beyond pain relief are not known. “While chiropractic can't fix osteoarthritis, it can help to prevent it from getting worse,” says Dearing.

Try some cold

Although being outside in the cold may make your osteoarthritis symptoms worse, applying cold (aka cold therapy) to a painful area may actually help.

For arthritis pain in the larger joints — like the back — Dearing recommends using ice instead of heat. “While heat feels better short-term, it tends to bring more blood to the area,” she says, which may make the pain worse once the heat is removed.

Some people, though, find that heat therapy works better for relieving osteoarthritis symptoms. So find what works for your spine.

You can also try using heat before exercise to loosen up the muscles, and cold afterwards to reduce muscle or joint aches. With both types of therapy, apply the cold or heat for no more than 20 minutes at a time.

Listen to your body

Everyone’s osteoarthritis is unique. So it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and to also know your limits. This can reduce your risk of hurting your spine, something Nayak is all-too-familiar with.

“Every year, I operate on multiple people who herniate discs while shoveling snow,” says Nayak.

Take care of yourself mentally

Nayak also recommends that people keep mentally active during the winter. This can help “maintain a positive attitude and mood,” he says, “which can affect our perception of pain.”

You can also try a little self-pampering like getting a massage, taking it easy when you need to or staying connected with family and friends. And when it’s cold and blowy outside, maybe make a cup of hot chocolate or hot tea, and take some time for yourself.

Updated: February 25, 2020

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Contributors and Experts

Dr. Benjamin Bjerke is fellowship-trained in neurosurgery and orthopedic spine surgery and specializes in surgical procedures of the cervical spine as well as minimally invasive lumbar procedures.