“It’s so cold.” “I can’t feel my toes.” “Look at my weird purple fingers.”
These are just a few of the statements that my friends, family, and basically anyone within a five-mile radius of me have had to put up with for the past few weeks. After temperatures dropped below 10 degrees last month I started spending most of my time under a blanket.
Okay, so obviously I’m a bit of a wimp, but I do have at least one good reason to dislike the cold: my arthritis hates it.
Suddenly my morning routine has doubled in length because my little stiff fingers don’t want to turn on the tap or do up my coat zipper. People walk past me coughing and I immediately think about all the immunosuppressants currently in my system and get a strange urge to go for a swim in a pool of disinfectant. And those 4pm dusks? Not so good for chronic fatigue.
Now, its pretty much common knowledge that cold weather makes arthritis worse, or at least its what I’ve been told every winter by almost every health professional I’ve seen in the past 12 years. I didn’t know exactly why though, so I turned to Google (that ultimate source of wisdom and unnecessary health scares) to find some more detail.
The Scientific(ish) Bit:
According to an Aussie arthritis foundation, a lot of studies confirm that people with arthritis are sensitive to both cold and damp weather. In fact, a lot of us report being able to predict rainfall with our joints. Think like Karen from Mean Girls but with arthritic knees instead of boobs – sexy. A recent study in the US found that almost 70 per cent of participants with arthritis felt more pain as a result of cold or damp weather, usually starting before this weather actually occurred.
A possible explanation for these psychic abilities? Unfortunately not a budding superpower. It was suggested that its actually the change in barometric pressure (aka the force exerted on to the earth by the weight of the atmosphere) that increases pain rather than the cold/damp weather itself. Storm brews -> barometric pressure falls -> less pressure on body (yay) -> tissues able to expand and put more pressure on nerves (not yay) -> pain.
(This is only one possible explanation suggested by the leader of this study, if anyone knows any others I’d love to hear them but please remember that I haven’t taken a science class in five years so please use small words.)
If all that was too much of a painful reminder of GCSE biology, here’s a quick summary of what I got from it:
• It’s very common to feel like your pain is getting worse in the winter, you probably aren’t just imagining it.
• It’s not as simple as cold weather making you ill – bodies with arthritis react differently to environmental changes in complex ways that are still being researched.
• You now have legitimate scientific grounds to tell everyone you can predict the weather.
How will I survive the winter without hibernating like a bear?
Having an explanation is all well and good, but at the end of the day none of us can control the weather. Emigration to Australia for the next six months definitely seems an attractive option, but sadly I have these annoying things called ‘adult responsibilities’ that get in the way a bit. So instead I’ve decided to focus on the things that I can control, and make a list of ways to survive winter.
Step One: Layer up
Wearing lots of loose layers keeps the heat in. I’m currently stocking up jumpers and am rarely seen without at least two pairs of socks on. Gloves are also an essential when the weather gets colder, especially if you’re like me (and a lot of other people with arthritis) and you’re prone to Reynaud’s Syndrome. Think thick: gloves that make your hands look outlandishly out of proportion to your body are better than swollen, itchy fingers, trust me.
Step Two: Make your environment warm
Yes, I know, as a student it’s not a small thing to be the first one to put the heating on, but really its not fun to be shivering inside your own house, your knees completely locked under your desk as you struggle to hold your pen. Ditch a couple of nights out and put it in to the heating bill, or invest in some draught excluders. Outside the house, your workplace is legally required to be safe and healthy, so if your’s is particularly cold tell your manager. If you’re a student and half your life is spent in the library, there is no shame in bringing a blanket. My university library even provides blankets and several hot water taps so I’ve been taking full advantage of that.
Step Three: Keep doing exercise!
It’s really important to keep doing some kind of exercise during the colder months, as stopping altogether can make joints even stiffer. The trick is to do that exercise in a warm environment. For me that’s usually the gym, but there’s a lot of free workout videos on the internet that you can do at home. I’m a big fan of fitnessblender.com because they have a lot of low-impact options. Alternatively, even walking around a warm shopping centre or dancing around the kitchen can work. And yes- I am saying that clubbing counts as ‘sensible indoor exercise.’ Go nuts.
Step Four: Avoid being damp
A pretty obvious one, no one likes being damp. Invest in waterproofs and a decent umbrella. Don’t do what I did and wander obliviously in to a huge rain storm. You know, simple things.
Step Five: Be aware of your mental wellbeing
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common mental health condition that often rears its ugly head at this time of year, bringing low mood, lethargy and loss of focus in its wake. People with chronic illness are known to be more prone to mental health problems, so if you’re in any way worried about this have a look at Mind’s page and think about speaking to your GP.
Even if things aren’t quite that bad, the longer nights and general lack of sunlight can still have a pretty powerful effect on your mood and energy levels, especially if you’re already struggling with pain-related brain fog or fatigue.
Exercise, again, has always been my go-to in times like this because it gets me energised even when it starts getting dark at 3pm. I also found out a few weeks ago that you’re never too old to run home to your mum. When the very obvious coming of winter really started to take a toll on me, a few nights with my family, cuddled up with my cat and limitless cups of tea gave me a huge mental boost and got me feeling a bit more like myself again.
Fall Can Be Fun (even with arthritis)
I’ll admit it: I am the autumn equivalent of the Grinch. I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween, I don’t like the dark, and I definitely don’t want to hear “ooh I can’t wait for autumn” in the middle of July.
This might be some kind of social media blasphemy (don’t worry, I still thoroughly support the cosy jumper aesthetic) but it’s not just that I’m a natural summer child. This time of year can be a killer when it comes to resurging health difficulties, and because of that I’ve come to dread it.
This year though, I’m trying to think about the things I actually enjoy about the coming winter. Maybe I am feeling a bit more like a hermit, but instead of mourning the loss of my outgoing self I’ve been re-discovering some indoor hobbies like reading, writing and music.
I also found a really helpful article on Arthur’s Place about how Scandinavians survive their winters, which make the UK look like the Bahamas. Although I’m not quite ready to pickle my food and I’m pretty sure most winter sports would kill me, turns out there’s a lot of really useful customs we can take from further north. One that stood out to me especially was how Scandinavians have built things that lift their spirits in to their winter culture, such as preparing and eating meals together, and celebrating festivals.
Feeling a bit inspired, I’ve now made plans to visit (and drag my friends to) as many Christmas markets as I can. Obviously, once the Christmas hype dies down we’ll enter the really difficult part of winter, which is why I’ve signed up for some more volunteering starting in the new year to keep me active and stop me attempting to hibernate until April.
The bottom line? No, this really isn’t mine or my joints’ favourite time of year, but there’s still a lot of positive things to be found in it, and as always plenty of ways to get around the arthritis-induced negatives.
May your houses be warm and your spiced lattes aesthetically pleasing,
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(Any opinions expressed in Izzie’s blog are not necessarily shared by Arthur’s Place. Nothing that you read in Izzie’s blog constitutes medical advice.)