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Guest Opinions

Managing Arthritis When Working in Cold Weather

To manage arthritis in cold weather, a leading rheumatologist once advised me, “Stay inside, walk in a local mall or perhaps consider a three month vacation to a warmer climate.”Okay, you can stop laughing – but read on.

Arthritis affects approximately one-third of all adult ranch and farm operators. Arthritis can cause significant impairment to one’s mobility, dexterity, capacity to lift heavy objects and even emotional health due to unmanaged pain. But Wyoming ranchers and farmers must climb ladders, mount tractors, feed livestock and use heavy tools in all types of weather including cold and snow. So the question is, does cold weather worsen arthritis?

Though science is unclear on the subject, just ask someone who lives with arthritis and they will tell you it does. There are a few ideas why this occurs. 

The most common one involves barometric pressure. Some researchers think that a drop in barometric pressure, which often occurs during cold, damp weather, allows tissues in joints to swell and puts pressure on nerves causing pain. 

A second hypothesis involves sympathetic nerves. These sympathetic nerves are part of the body’s system for maintaining its internal functioning without us having to think about it. When it is cold, these nerves constrict blood vessels in the limbs to minimize heat loss and help keep the body core warm. But the increased activation of these nerves around joints might also lead to an increase in the pain a person feels.

There are other things that occur when the weather turns cold. 

A winter drop in mood is common in many people, and low mood may be linked to higher levels of perceived pain. Shorter days and colder temperatures can also make us less active and immobility can make arthritis pain worse. Though there is no evidence that weather changes lead to joint damage, cold weather does appear to increase the pain.  

The good news is there are practical steps that can be taken to manage the pain.

First, ease the pain at home.

Don’t scrimp on heat. Saving money by lowering the thermostat may not be the best option for those with arthritis. You may pay in other ways. Keep your home at a comfortable level.

Plug in some warmth. An electric blanket is effective for keeping you warm while resting or sleeping. A heating pad is helpful for localized areas where joints have become stiff.

Also, remember to preheat. Before driving your vehicle, preheat it. It may take you longer to get going, but sitting in a warm vehicle beats shivering in a cold one. Also, one rancher warms her long johns in the dryer before dressing to leave the house. Sound strange?  Not if you have arthritis.

Treat yourself. Hot beverages such as herbal tea, broth or hot chocolate are soothing and warming.  Some people also find that taking a warm bath at night just prior to going to bed helps during winter months.

Loosen up. It is important to keep moving. Exercise the affected joints before going out in cold weather. Regular exercise will not only loosen joints, but will help prevent winter weight gain that puts more stress on painful joints.

Secondly, beware of the elements.

Cold is an occupational hazard for ranchers and farmers that can lead to direct cold-related health problems, such as hypothermia, frostbite or trench foot. In addition, there are indirect consequences from over-exposure to the cold.

Disease flare-ups may occur from over-exposure. Conditions like COPD and arthritis can be made worse in cold environments.

Additionally, an increase in injuries may result. Cold weather can decrease dexterity, mental skills and coordination and cause a decline in performance that affects safety.

Strains and sprains are more likely in cold weather. Working in cold weather can increase the risk of injuries to muscles and tendons, such as back strain.

Finally, breathing problems may result. Breathing cold, dry air can aggravate conditions such as bronchitis, emphysema or asthma.

Third, work safely in the cold.

There are several actions that can be taken to work safely outdoors and reduce the impact of arthritis.

When dressing for working in the cold, there are a number of factors to consider.

Wear a minimum of three layers of clothing – an outer layer that breaks the wind, a middle layer that retains insulation and an inner layer that allows for ventilation.  In some arthritic conditions though, if layers are too heavy or too tight, pain can increase.

Have a change of clothes available in case your clothes get wet or you sweat excessively.

Protect your hands with insulated gloves. Mittens may work better in very cold conditions and might be easier for those with arthritis in their hands. 

Protect your feet from cold and dampness with layered socks inside comfortable, insulated boots. Tight fitting boots restrict blood circulation and increase foot pain.

Protect your head and face. Though it may be a myth that one loses the most heat through your head, heat escapes from any exposed area. And, as we get older, there is less on top to stop that heat loss.

Considering the work site is also important.

Use on-site sources of heat, such as air jets and radiant heaters, to provide warmth.

Make sure that a heated shelter or vehicle is available for anyone who has experienced prolonged exposure to wind chill temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reduce drafty or windy areas in buildings to shield work areas.

Use thermal insulating material on handles of equipment to reduce pain when touching cold objects. Touching cold objects with bare hands can exacerbate the pain.

Avoid sitting or kneeling on cold, unprotected surfaces.  To reduce joint stiffness, alternate between sitting and standing.  Stretch frequently.

Personal safety is also very important.

Seek warm shelter if you experience symptoms such as heavy shivering, severe fatigue, stumbling or drowsiness.

Do not use alcohol when working in a cold environment, as it increases heat loss.

Dehydration can be a problem in cold weather, so make sure lots of warm drinks and soups are on hand at the worksite. 

The cold of winter is the time of year that many with arthritis dread. Preventing cold weather arthritis pain can be challenging. However, by using the suggestions above and learning more about managing arthritis from Arthritis and Agriculture at arthritis-ag.org, ranchers and farmers with arthritis can work safely outdoors while managing their pain. 

Randy Weigel is a professor, Extension specialist and Wyoming AgrAbility project director in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on farm and ranch health and safety, contact Wyoming AgrAbility at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit uwyo.edu/agrability.