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5 ways to beat cold-weather joint pain

Find out why joint pain gets worse in winter — and how to get relief.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

If you feel like you can predict a cold snap based on how stiff or achy your joints are, you’re not alone. Aches and pains are often associated with colder weather, although the reasons aren’t completely clear.

“We’re not sure exactly why some older adults notice their osteoarthritis worsens when the temperature drops. But one theory is that low temperatures increase the thickness of joint fluid, which makes joints stiffer,” says Timothy W. Gibson, M.D. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and medical director of the MemorialCare Joint Replacement Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Changes in barometric pressure may also cause muscles and tendons to expand and press on sensitive joints.

There are a few other reasons you may find yourself oh-so-achy in the winter. On the list:

  • Skipping exercise. When it’s cold outside, people often become less active. And a lack of exercise brings on joint pain. “Often, patients with bad knees say their first few steps of the day are the worst ones,” Dr. Gibson says. In other words, after hours of being in bed and inactive, joints tighten up and feel worse. The same is true if you choose curling up on the couch where it’s warm over exercise in winter.
  • Seasonal depression. “When you’re depressed in the winter months, it can really magnify your perception of pain,” says Dr. Gibson. “Especially if you’re not as out and about as you are in warmer weather.”
  • Comfort foods. Winter may have you craving comfort foods like pizza and macaroni and cheese. But a high-fat, highly processed diet can trigger inflammation that worsens osteoarthritis, says Dr. Gibson. And if you happen to gain a few pounds, that puts even more pressure on joints.
  • Dehydration. “People often also don’t drink enough water in the wintertime. There’s less of a thirst impulse,” points out Dr. Gibson. “But dehydration can worsen joint pain.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to spend your winter months feeling achy and miserable. Here are five ways to get some much-needed relief.

1. Layer up

“It can be helpful to keep warmth around your joints as much as possible when in the cold, particularly when exercising outside,” says Diana Patterson, M.D. She’s an orthopedist at Stony Brook Medicine in East Setauket, New York. “This can be important around the knees, which usually have less superficial muscle and soft tissue than the hips or shoulders do.”

When you go out, dress in lightweight layers that trap warm air close to your body. Try thermal long underwear, which can fit nicely under your regular clothes without being too bulky. And think about using neoprene, elastic or Lycra sleeves on sore joints, such as knees and ankles. These sleeves are available at most pharmacies. “They increase local blood flow and tissue warmth, which promotes improved motion and less pain,” says Daniel K. Davis, M.D. He’s an orthopedist at Adventist Heath Simi Valley in Simi Valley, California.

2. Adjust your pain meds

If you know your knees ache when it snows, plan ahead before a winter storm hits. Preventing the worsening of joint pain is more effective than active treatment once the irritation sets in, says Dr. Davis. Talk to your doctor about taking an over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen beforehand. That can help reduce symptoms before they get out of control. If you’re already taking medication, ask your doctor about increasing your dose.

3. Eat like an Italian

Italians are big on the Mediterranean-style diet. That’s one that’s rich in fruits, veggies, healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, whole grains and fish. Research suggests that a Mediterranean diet can reduce some of the inflammation of osteoarthritis and possibly even improve symptoms.1 (Osteoarthritis is the wearing down of the protective tissue at the ends of bones.) One great way to get closer to a Mediterranean diet? Cut down on processed foods as much as you can, says Dr. Gibson. But while wine is also a part of the Mediterranean diet, Dr. Gibson says to steer clear of alcohol. It can cause dehydration (loss of too much fluid from the body), which makes joint pain worse.2

4. Try a new activity

It’s normal to want to be less active when it’s cold. But this reduction in joint motion may lead to more stiffness, pain and swelling, says Dr. Davis. It can also worsen the depression that sometimes goes along with cold weather. If you can’t bear to bundle up and go for a brisk walk outdoors, try moving your workout inside.

An excellent indoor option is tai chi. One study found that it may help reduce lower back pain and improve function.3 It also improves depression.4 If you have access to a warm pool, that’s also a good choice. Swimming can build muscle strength while also loosening stiff muscles.

All of these activities can help you lose weight too, which should improve joint pain. Losing 10 pounds relieves 40 pounds of pressure on your knees, reports the Arthritis Foundation.5

5. Talk to your doctor

If you’ve tried all of the above tips and are still hobbling around, don’t suffer in silence. Your primary care provider can refer you to an orthopedic specialist. This is a doctor who specializes in the musculoskeletal system — bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles. They can offer other solutions, such as a steroid shot to relieve pain.


1Morales-Ivorra I, Romera-Baures M, Roman-Vinas B, et al. Osteoarthritis and the Mediterranean diet: a systemic review. Nutrients. August 2018, 10(8): 1030.

2News Medical Life Sciences. Does drinking alcohol cause joint pain in arthritis? October 8, 2019. Accessed June 13, 2022.

3Qin J, Zhang Y, Wu L et al. Effect of Tai Chi alone or as additional therapy on low back pain. Medicine. September 2019, 98(37): e17099.

4Kong J, Wilson G, Park J et al. Treating depression with Tai Chi: state of the art and future perspectives. Frontiers in Psychiatry. April 12, 2019; 10.

5Arthritis Foundation. Weight loss benefits for arthritis. Accessed June 13, 2022.


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