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With Cleveland’s winter weather upon us, you are not alone if you are experiencing joint and bone pain. While you can feel joint pain any time throughout the year, sensitivity tends to spike for many patients as temperatures drop – particularly for those experiencing arthritis and joint degeneration.

There is ongoing debate among researchers and the medical community as to the exact connection between colder weather and increased pain. As an orthopedic surgeon, I believe there are several factors that contribute and by helping patients understand these factors leads to better pain management through Cleveland’s winter months.

Decreased activity: For many of us, our activity levels decrease in the winter months. Frigid temperatures and snow accumulations presents a challenge for those who rely on walking or running outdoors. Less activity means less circulation to our muscles and joints and leads to stiffness in our joints. It is important to implement an alternative winter workout routine, whether in the gym or in your home, to maintain muscles and joint health.

Body protecting itself: As temperatures drop, the body works to protect itself by conserving heat and sending more blood to central organs like the heart and lungs. As a result, less blood is circulated to legs, knees and other joints making those areas more stiff and painful. Those who maintain outside activities during the winter can mitigate this effect by wearing loose layers that trap body heat and paying special attention to the head, hands and feet, where the majority of the body’s heat is lost.

Bariatric pressure: A number of studies indicate increased bone and joint pain may not be caused by a drop in temperature alone, but rather the drop in bariatric pressure as a cold spell approaches. Experts believe these drops in bariatric pressure can cause tendons, muscles and surrounding tissues to expand, placing pressure on the nerves that control pain.

Synovial fluid thickening: Research suggests that colder temperatures may thicken synovial fluid, the shock absorbing fluid that prevents friction in our joints. To combat this, adequate stretching before and proper cool down after activities will help to prevent stiffness and injury.

Decrease in vitamin D: Gray winter skies and more time indoors lead to decreased absorption of vitamin D. Not only is adequate vitamin D important for joint and muscle health, lower than recommended levels can lead to mood changes. Feeling sad or depressed can lead to an increased sensitivity to pain. It is important to talk with your doctor about the need for vitamin D supplements.

Winter joint pain is real and not just an old wives tale, but you can fight it by understanding the causes and taking proper precautions.

Dr. Matthew Levy writes about orthopedics for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center and practices in Solon, Independence and downtown Cleveland.

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