By Emily Baudot for Northern Colorado Life
Colorado winters are beautiful, but sometimes they can be a real pain—in your joints, that is.
Cold weather joint pain can really get in the way of your active lifestyle. But no worries. We’ve gathered up info on managing joint discomfort so you can get back in the action.
What causes joint pain?
Joints are made of connective tissues and cartilage. They go through a lot of wear and tear, so they can start hurting for many reasons.
Cold weather especially bothers our knees, hips and ankles.
Unfortunately, there’s little scientific evidence as to why this happens. Theories range from limited blood flow to barometric pressure changes to the laziness we feel every winter.
What can you do to manage joint pain?
There are several ways to manage joint aches during winter.
You may need to experiment to figure out which method works for you. You might even need a combination of the three. Everyone’s joints have different needs.
1. The RICE method
The RICE method is an injury care system from sports medicine. It’s great for sprains, muscle tears and, coincidentally, joint pain. The acronym stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
Rest is self-explanatory—when you start to feel soreness, stop what you’re doing and let that spot rest for a bit.
Next, Ice down the joint to numb the pain and reduce inflammation. This might seem counterintuitive to cold-weather pain, but it works well on all kinds of injuries.
Compression sounds intense, but here it just means wrapping the affected area to help the joint relax. You can use either an elastic wrap or the support sleeves sold in most pharmacies. Be sure not to wrap up too tightly! This can limit blood flow and make your situation worse.
Finally, Elevation. By propping the affected joint above heart level, fluid drains out and further reduces swelling. It’s also a great way to relax.
The RICE method specifically helps reduce joint inflammation, so if you try it without success, your aches might come from another source.
2. Exercising properly
Not all joint pain improves with the RICE method. Sometimes, stiff joints result from a lack of blood flow. No blood means less warmth, and less warmth leads to stiff muscles and discomfort.
Gentle motion and regular exercise can alleviate this type of pain. Exercise increases blood flow around the whole body. It also strengthens muscles, which can support your body weight and help your joints do their work.
Working some static exercises into your routine is a great place to start exercising away joint pain. If you aren’t strong enough for physical activity, try simple stretches or walks to work up low-impact energy.
3. Over-the-counter care
Sometimes joint pain can’t work itself out. If you need a more potent remedy, there are a few options to choose from at your local pharmacy.
Topical numbing medications like creams, patches or sprays are great for moderate pain relief. They contain chemicals that cause a tingling or warming sensation on the skin, which “distracts” your nerves from pain. They’re great in combination with light exercises since they provide enough relief for the joint to become mobile and receive blood flow.
Remember to never use a warming pad in combination with topical medications. It can cause the topicals to absorb into the blood too quickly. Chat with your pharmacist before trying these out.
Another, stronger option are pill-form NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These include medications like ibuprofen, naproxen sodium and aspirin (or their brand name equivalents).
As you take them, keep in mind that taking too many NSAIDs over a long period of time can cause stomach issues or hypertension.
When does joint pain become serious?
If none of these techniques relieve your pain, or if you need to use a method every day for relief, it’s probably time to chat with a doctor. Chronic joint pain can be a sign of injury, arthritis or other diseases.
It’s especially important to watch for signs of swelling, redness or bruising. Those symptoms can signal a more serious condition.
Whether you need clinical care or not, you can start living life around your pain by paying it a little more attention. Listen to your body, and it won’t hold you back.