Oh, my aching bones!

With cooler weather on its way, arthritis patients brace for greater pain

With cooler weather on its way, arthritis patients brace for greater pain

September 19, 2005|By KRISTIN WILSON

Vicki Firor's aching joints can predict an oncoming storm about as effectively as any weather forecaster, she says.

When a storm is on the horizon, changes in barometric pressure and humidity levels swell her arthritic joints, sending her after anti-inflammatory medications.

Arthritis patients like Firor know that their condition can flare up at any time, but for some, the change of season ? which often brings temperature and humidity shifts ? can take some adjustments in managing pain control.

"We do know for sure that barometric pressure changes aggravate arthritis conditions," says Dr. Nathan Wei of The Arthritis Center in Frederick, Md. A weather mixture of high humidity and freezing temperatures can be the pits for some of his patients, he says. "Those damp January days really seem to be a problem for our osteoarthritis patients."


"Most patients will notice increased pain, stiffness and joint tenderness in the cold weather," adds Dr. Steven Klein of the Hagerstown-based Rheumatology Consultants.

But beyond that, there is not much research to prove that spikes in pain many arthritis patients feel come from changes in the weather. In fact, Klein says, "a small percentage actually feel better in cold weather." Arthritis comes in many forms and is caused by multiple factors. The type of arthritis a person is diagnosed with has a lot to do with how pain is managed, doctors say.

Hagerstown resident Virginia Mc-Kee is one that says she doesn't notice her arthritis getting worse at certain times of the year.

"They say cold weather will stiffen you up. But I find that (the arthritis) just comes and goes as it wants to," she says.

For Ruby Diffendal of Hagerstown, cold weather is a nightmare. She says she can't even stand air-conditioning.

"I'm fine when I stay warm. I just freeze up in the winter," she says.

So what's an aching body to do?

Doctors and physical therapists say arthritis patients should manage their pain and condition through the change of season just as they should throughout the year. That includes exercising regularly, stretching, soothing joints with heat or cold packs and working with a physician to adjust pain medication.

Thaw frozen joints

From Dr. Wei's experience, his arthritis patients "love warm-water therapy. Exercises in a heated pool are very, very effective in relieving symptoms," he says. Europeans have long treated arthritis by soothing joints with heat therapy. "They place a lot of emphasis on things like spas and warm-water therapy," Wei says.

Heat relaxes the muscles around the joints and can relieve stiffness and pain. Being in the water also takes stress off of the body and joints.

Joanne Physioc regularly attends the Arthritis Aquatics class at Total Rehab Care's pool at Robinwood. She says she feels relief from the arthritis that spreads throughout her body as soon as she gets into the pool. Regular aquatic exercise helps her keep flexible and minimizes her pain, she says.

In lieu of seeking an indoor pool, arthritis patients might try taking a hot bath or using a hot tub or sauna to help ease pain. Hot-water bottles wrapped in damp towels might work, Wei says.

Work out the pain

Keeping up an exercise, stretching and movement regimen can work wonders in managing arthritis pain, doctors say. Staying active on a regular basis is important because joints can get stiff with inactivity. Donna Zwick of Myersville says, when she misses even a few days of exercise, it's like starting from scratch.

"If (patients) are on a regular exercise program they are less likely to experience the change" of weather, says Julie Martin, physical therapist assistant and aquatic instructor at Total Rehab Care. "Exercise strengthens the muscles and supports the joints," making the joints less likely to experience pain and swelling.

"Some people think if it hurts, don't move it," she adds. "With arthritis, the more the joint actually moves, it self-lubricates, so that (patients) can move better and have less pain. Moving is a great thing for the body."

Martin adds a word of caution when patients start an exercise program: "One thing that we recommend for patients with arthritis is not to make activity changes during season changes," she says. "Try not to pick spring cleaning when the season changes," or starting a walking regimen during the fall to winter shift.

Consider medication

With the removal of arthritis prescription drugs such as Vioxx and Bextra from the market, many patients have questions about how to safely manage arthritis-related pain, Dr. Wei says.

"That's been a huge issue," he says of the changes. "People are afraid. There's a lot of confusion, there's a lot of anger."

Both prescription medications, which helped patients handle arthritis pain, were removed after clinical trials showed that the medications could increase the chances of heart attack or stroke when taken for a year and a half or longer.

The Herald-Mail Articles