What to Do when the Winter Hurts

I run warm. I have always run warm. If I lived alone, my thermostat would be kept around 68 degrees, and I’d wear short sleeves but have a thin blanket nearby.

Because of this, I used to not mind the winters so much.

My history with cold weather

I’ve spent all of my life in the midwest of the United States, and most of my time in or near Chicago.

So, the temperatures usually drop sometime around Halloween, and from November until sometime in mid-April or even May, we manage outside temperatures ranging from chilly to cold to downright frigid. When I was younger, commuting to school or work, or playing outside didn’t feel painful.

I could not ignore the pain in my joints

When I was 23, that changed. I was in the middle of a major autoimmune attack. This was prior to being officially diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (or Crohn’s disease), but my inflammatory markers were off the charts.

I was struggling to eat or keep food down, move around, climb the stairs, get dressed, and function as an adult.

That winter, Chicago experienced “snowmageddon” - a gigantic snowstorm that left many businesses and homes closed for days at a time. My friends ran to play outside, sled, and build snowmen, but I couldn’t ignore the excruciating pain in my joints.

I spent those days burrowed on the couch under several different blankets.

How cold weather impacts my joints

What I’ve learned since is that the cold weather - for me, specifically cold, DAMP weather - wreaks havoc on the inflammation in my body.

I find that the pain and stiffness I experience in my joints increases quickly and sometimes dramatically when the weather changes. Unfortunately, I don’t just experience this in the fall but also in the spring when the seasons change.

Temperature fluctations

I notice it first when the temperatures drop at the end of summer. Usually, the midwest has some sort of cold snap, followed by a brief warmup, followed by accepting that we’re into autumn.

Each change, each up and down in the weather, is associated with ups and downs in how I move around, how much pain I’m struck with, and how challenged I am at going about my day.

Once we stabilize somewhere in the 20s or 30s, my body finds a new normal, which is again interrupted when we experience sudden and below-freezing temperatures, snow, winds, or anything out of the ordinary.

My rollercoaster ride continues until the temperatures warm in the spring, with a special note that the damp, dreary rainy days that most people don’t mind can send me into crippling pain at the drop of a dime. I used to joke with my friends that I could become a meteorologist just by listening to the aches in my knees.

4 ways to manage cold weather with RA

What I want you to know is that the cold - although potentially more painful for some RA patients - doesn't have to be debilitating. Here are some tips I've found helpful:

  1. Obviously, wearing warm and protective clothing when outside is critical. I've found layers to be best, often wearing 2 pairs of leggings together or leggings under snow pants. Thick socks and gloves help to keep my fingers and toes covered, and I really like those instant hot packs that can be placed inside your shoes to keep your feet extra toasty! Note: these can totally be kept in your pockets too to warm up your hands!
  2. Warm winter boots with good traction are a must.
  3. The heating pad is my best friend. Heating aching joints helps reduce pain and stiffness quicker, enabling me to have some relief between episodes.
  4. Movement. When I can, moving, stretching, or walking helps keep my joints a little more limber and my pain more manageable.

If your RA flares with cold weather or in the winter, I'd love to know what other tips you have found helpful!

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