By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Genetics, age, lifestyle–those are just some of the factors that come into play in whether you’ll end up needing orthopedic surgery at some point in your life. As it turns out, Michigan’s cold weather–or really, cold weather anywhere–likely also plays a role in whether you’ll have to visit the operating room.
The Effects of the Cold on Your Joint and Nearby Tissues
Although the higher barometric pressure that often comes with cooler temperatures actually might reduce swelling somewhat by preventing tissue expansion, the cold causes the blood vessels in your knee and surrounding tissues to contract, impairing good circulation. Additionally, your muscles want to stay tight and contracted in response to the decrease in blood flow, resulting in a loss of flexibility. Lastly, pain receptors become more sensitive. This phenomenon is particularly problematic for joint patients due to the fact that their nerves already might be more sensitized from scarring, inflammation and adhesions.
How Cold Problems Increase Surgery Potential
When circulation is poor in your joint because it’s frigid outside, it’s much harder for your body to deliver the white blood cells, oxygen and nutrients necessary for healing. The rate of additional damage to the joint might exceed the rate at which your body can fix your tissues as a result. If the low temperature causes your muscles to be tight and you’re in increased pain, you might be more tempted to skip physical activities.
The problem with saying “no” to movement is that both your bones and muscles maintain or gain strength only when they are put through some reasonable stress: When you work a muscle hard, microscopic tears occur in the fibers. Your body responds by repairing the tears and building additional fibers to protect the muscle from future damage. Similarly, working your muscles places increased tension on your bones. Your body tries to increase the density of the bones to ensure they can handle the new demand. Understanding these processes, the less active you are because of the cold, the more likely it is that your muscles will weaken and be unable to provide proper support, increasing stress on the joint. Lack of bone strength increases your risk of fracture if you subsequently lose your balance and fall due to the muscle weakness.
Beyond these harsh effects, lack of exercise hurts your joints and increases the risk of needing an operation in other ways. Without activity, you might gain some weight, which further stresses your joints. You also might feel more moody or depressed, both from your pain and because you aren’t getting the release of “feel good” endorphins exercise promotes. Fatigue also can be more problematic. The mood issues combined with feeling physically tired can lead to an increase in eating and additional weight gain, as well as problems such as decreased immune system function.
What You Can Do
Although you can’t control the weather, you still can protect your joints and possibly reduce your risk of orthopedic surgery. Joint experts recommend that you stay active as much as you can to keep yourself strong and flexible, and dress warmly in layers. Heat creams or heating pads and medications can also relieve discomfort and get you going.
Cold weather can be tough on joints, decreasing circulation and making it tough to get the strength- and flexibility-building exercise you need. Nevertheless, you can protect yourself with relatively simple measures.