Be Well: Are You Low on (Joint) Fluid?

When the mercury dips, the fluid that acts as our body’s shock absorber thickens up. But if you’re experiencing jolts of pain in the middle of the night or can’t quite shake that daytime tightness, it’s not just a side effect of #BoldNorth—it’s likely something more, a local chiropractic expert explains.

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Turns out, winter and our joints are not particularly friends. Blame a combination of Minnesota’s bone-dry air, cold temperatures, and icy conditions that make us tighten our bodies and brace for falls.

Many wintertime joint problems are caused by our physiology; joints contain synovial fluid that act as a shock absorber, keeping joints lubricated and moving well. But when the mercury dips, that fluid thickens much like motor oil and results in less nimble joints, says Amy Horton, DC, a chiropractor and associate clinical professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington.

“On average, we tend to be a little less active in the winter. Our joints like to move—their job is movement,” Horton says. “It might be easier in the summer to go out for a stroll. But when it’s 20 below and the sidewalks are icy, we tend not to go for a walk. We hibernate and aren’t as active.”

Barometric pressure also can affect our joints—it isn’t an old wives’ tale. When a cold front is coming and the barometric pressure drops, the body experiences less pressure. That reduced pressure leads joints and tissues to expand, putting stress on them and causing pain.

The Heart of the Matter

There are other reasons your joints might not be feeling their best, yet it’s sometimes hard for people to identify the root causes of their pain, Horton says, because there is overlap between joints, muscles, and nerves. When you hear creaking and crunching going up the stairs, that’s typically a joint problem. If you have localized or widespread pain that’s tender to the touch, that often means muscles are the main driver of your discomfort. Tingling and numbness signals that the nerves have gotten involved.

Previous and current injuries and arthritis all can play a role, too. Two common forms of arthritis target the joints—osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease where the body attacks the membranes lining the joints. Osteoarthritis generally stems from wear and tear on the cartilage that cushions joints, which causes the bones to rub closer together. It’s not just about age, though, Horton says. Previous injury may put joints at risk for osteoarthritis.

In addition, food sensitivities sometimes play a role in joint pain, Horton says. Wheat, dairy, corn, soy, and most definitely sugar can cause inflammation that affects the joints. An elimination diet or food sensitivity testing could determine if one or more food groups are contributing to your joint pain.

Not sure if you should consult a health care professional about your joint pain?  Horton shares these signs that it might be time to see someone:

  • New joint pain
  • Redness and swelling around the joint
  • Joints that are locking
  • Injury or trauma to a joint
  • Fever and achiness without respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms

You’re Getting Warmer

There are many ways to help your stiff and achy joints feel better. Remember that thickened synovial fluid? Heat will assist with thinning it out—so think about using a heating pad or taking a hot bath, Horton says. Many people with achy joints find that adding Epsom salts, or magnesium sulfate, to the water can bring extra relief.

Consider topical over-the-counter medications like Icy Hot, Ben Gay, or Tiger Balm. They won’t heal any joint problems, Horton says, but they do keep circulation flowing to sore areas and can ease pain. Exercise also is great for improving joint stiffness and soreness, but don’t overdo it.

Supplements like Vitamin D can tamp down inflammation and reduce joint pain. Turmeric, bromelain, and collagen all can support joint health, too. But be sure to check with your health care provider before starting any new supplements, Horton says.

Finally, chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and other providers can get you feeling a whole lot better by addressing specific issues with joints, both acute and chronic. And before you know it, warm weather will get you and your joints moving fluidly again.