The weather today has me grumbly and groany. I remember when falling snow brought feelings of wonder and glee. Now it’s all pain and annoyance, often served with a helping of self pity and heaps of promises to move to a kinder climate one day. There is no doubt about it, the blanket of snow that my younger self adored now brings with it the worst of my RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) symptoms. No ifs, ands or buts about it, winter with RA, or any of the other 100+ types of arthritis, is rough. But it doesn’t have to be taming a tiger rough, it can be toilet training a toddler rough. Messy, frustrating, sometimes painfully so, but not likely to cripple you. Since winter has decided to grace us with his presence well before Thanksgiving, its time to do what any good New Englander does, dig out the winter survival gear and hunker down. Over the years, I’ve found a few things that help me keep moving when the world freezes over.
The first and probably most obvious is staying warm. If you have any type of arthritis you know what it feels like when you get too cold. With RA that bone chilled stiffness and pain can invade your entire body. So dress warm, layer up. Develop a deep love for cozy sweaters, fuzzy socks, and all things snuggly and warm. Finger-less gloves are a must for anyone with hand/wrist arthritis. Keep those hands toasty, thank me later. Use hand and foot warmers when you go out into the cold. If you are a sports family and spend any time at outdoor sports, get a padded (or even better, heated) cushion to sit on at games. The toastier you are, the less you will ache later. At home, heated wraps, heated blankets, and heated mattress pads all help beat the cold and ease the aches and pains of arthritis. Other things that chase away that bone chilling cold feeling are hand spas, wood burning stoves, and the ultimate dream, hot tubs! Anything that really pushes the heat into those bones will make you ache less. The number one rule for winter survival with arthritis, the cozier you are, the better you will feel.
Dressing warm helps protect us from the cold, but what about the ice outside? Every winter 1 million Americans are injured in a winter slip/fall accident. In fact, most of the slip and fall injuries occur at this time of year. Icy conditions can make staying on your feet a challenge. Add any kind of balance or mobility issues, like those often associated with arthritic damage, and it is easy to see why so many people unexpectedly find themselves on the ground in winter. Luckily, there are a few great aids out there to help people stay upright. A nice warm pair of winter boots with an aggressive tread are your first defense against slippery ice. Ice cleats, made to slide over your shoes, are made by a variety of companies and help add traction to everyday shoes and winter boots. A walking stick, especially one equipped with an ice spike tip, can help you stay on your feet by providing an extra point of balance and grip. Last, but certainly not least, Walk Like a Penguin! No, I’m not kidding, those tuxedoed flightless birds certainly have perfected the art of the slow and steady waddle. So, don’t rush, pay attention to where you are putting your feet and waddle away. It might take longer to get where you are going, but the time you save healing broken bones will be well worth it.
Finally, and just as important and staying warm and upright, taking measures to stay as healthy as possible will make winter much more tolerable. It is no secret that most colds and flus spread more quickly in winter. It also happens to be the time of year those with arthritis complain of the most inflammation. There are a few reasons for this, and many ways we can combat this pattern. Winter generally means less time outside in the sun, fewer fresh fruits and veggies, less exercise, and holiday after holiday filled with delicious, inflammatory treats. It’s pretty easy to guess why this is the least healthy time of year in the Northern hemisphere. Vitamin depletion paired with higher germ exposure from being cooped up inside allows winter bugs to spread. Being sure you are getting enough fruits and veggies, adding a multivitamin and a vitamin D supplement can help build your immunity and resistance to those nasty invaders. Protecting yourself from germs by washing hands frequently and even wearing a mask in areas with high potential of germ contact, can help you dodge many of the bugs we pass around in winter. Getting exercise daily will also help you stay healthy and keep arthritic joints mobile. So dig out those exercise videos and move it! Or, better yet, bundle up and go try snowshoeing, cross country skiing or some other low impact winter exercise. The fresh air and sunshine will do you good.
Staying healthy when you have inflammatory arthritis disorders, like RA or PsA, also means watching out for those delicious holiday treats and the endless comfort foods available in winter. Being mindful of what you are eating will make your holidays, and the days between, much more bearable. It is an undeniable fact that sugar causes inflammation, this is true even for completely healthy bodies. In autoimmune bodies, consuming sugar is very much like throwing gasoline on a fire. The result will always be a flare up of that unwanted fiery activity, inflammation. So proceed with caution. Keep in mind that those treats you are reaching for come with pain later, and don’t sign up for more than you can handle. Better yet, offset the fuel you add to the fire with some inflammation busters like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, green tea, and chaga. These powerful plants and fungi are excellent fire fighters, proven to reduce inflammation. Being mindful of diet and including some helpful inflammation busters will go a long way toward making winter less achy.
With a little extra self-care, a bit of caution, and all the warm things you can get your chilly little paws on, winter doesn’t have to be the season of endless suffering. You might even find some pretty great days. Between storms of course, they’ve yet to make a cure for those weather related symptoms every arthritis sufferer lives with. Until they do, I’ll be spending these stormy days snuggled up with my electric blanket and a big steamy cup of chai green tea, plotting my escape to warmer destinations.
What gets you through winter with arthritis?