Sunday, December 11, 2016

Winter's Impact on Muscles & Joints

By Dr. Leena Athparia, ND

In colder weather, do you notice that your joints feel stiffer? Do you feel that your muscles are tighter? If you are like many Canadians, chances are that your joint and muscle pain increases with the onset of colder temperatures. For example, individuals with arthritis notice a striking connection with damp cold weather and increasing joint pain. It’s not just limited to arthritis – many individuals notice increased muscle stiffness when the temperatures drop, regardless of whether they are indoors or outdoors. Many people brush off joint and muscle pain assuming that it’s just part of “getting older” and that you “just have to live with it”. The truth is, you don't have to live it.  There are a number of things you can do to feel strong and active all year year long.


How Does Winter Affect Joints & Muscles?

The change in the weather doesn't cause arthritis, but it can worsen symptoms and increase pain in areas that are weakened or susceptible. When you feel cold, blood vessels constrict in the extremities (arms and legs) so that warm blood can supply vital organs such as the heart and liver. This means that there is less blood flow to the joints increasing discomfort. On top of that, when it is cold outside, you have a tendency to stay indoors. When you are less active, there is a tendency to put on weight which adds to the stress on the joints.

Also, when you are cold, muscles have a tendency to contract. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), winter is the season of Yin – with the qualities such as cold, slow, passive, contracting. These qualities manifest in the physical body as well as in the mind, and the opposite qualities are needed to restore balance. From the perspective of Ayurveda, fall and early winter is dominant in Vata – which has the qualities of cold, dry, rough and mobile. These qualities that exist in nature also exist in your body. Vata easily enters the more vulnerable areas of the body causing dry, stiff and cold joints and muscles. If you have a constitution that is dominant in Vata, you may be even more prone to these issues.

Tips To Protect & Strengthen Your Muscles and Joints

To help restore balance and bring relief to muscles and joints, the following tips can keep you moving pain-free this winter.

Stay Warm

  • Apply heat: Most joint and muscle pain feels better with heat. Warm showers, heating pads and clothing can help keep you warm. When your joints are stiff or sore, apply heat.
  • Protect vulnerable areas: If you have neck pain, keep neck warm with scarves or hot packs at home. If you have back pain, make sure you dress warm and cover your low back. Whatever joint is sore or stiff, ensure that it stays warm and protected.
  • Wear layers: Dressing in layers helps you stay warm according to the climate and keeps you insulated while reducing your chances of muscle spasms from the cold. You can peel off layers as you warm up with outdoor activities.

Posture

  • Suitable footwear: If you are prone to slips and falls, footwear is an important place to start. To protect yourself and keep your balance on icy pavement, wear footwear that is warm, waterproof and has good grip for winter walking. Taking care of footwear can help you walk more comfortably and confidently outdoors.
  • Stay warm outdoors: Wear suitable winter gear when outdoors to protect from the cold & the wind. Your body tends to curl up and hunch over to conserve heat when outdoors and this increases postural imbalance. 
  • Self-awareness: Pay attention to your posture to reduce strain on your joints and muscles while doing activities such as shoveling snow or walking on slippery pavement. With increased time spent indoors, be aware of how you are sitting (at the computer, watching tv etc.) and take breaks every 30 minutes to move.

Diet

Eating a diet suited to your unique constitution can help keep you warm and balanced throughout the winter and prevent you from putting on extra weight. Speak to your naturopathic doctor to learn more about how diet can be tailored for you.
  • Follow a seasonal diet: According to Ayurveda, winter diets promote warming foods and help counteract the qualities of cold. For individuals with a Vata or Kapha constitution, it is easier to experience imbalance during the winter and it is crucial to follow a diet suited to the season. Food such as root vegetables are very grounding and nourishing in winter. A colourful plate with a variety of vegetables brings life and stimulates digestion in long winter months.
  • Eat warming foods: Foods that are warm in temperature help regulate your body's temperature. Certain foods also have energetically warming properties that warm up your body from the inside out. Herbal teas such as ginger or spices such as black pepper and cinnamon keep your body warm and promote circulation to keep your fingers and toes warm during winter.
  • Avoid cooling foods: Cooling foods are not only foods that are cold in temperature but have energetically cooling qualities. When the temperature is cold outside, cooling foods such as dairy, ice cream and raw food add to the cooling effect on your body. It is best to avoid these foods to stay warm, active and healthy during winter.
  • Avoid heavy foods: You may have a tendency to feel more tired, and have a tendency to put on weight. Foods such as deep fried foods, cheese and junk food are heavy to digest and increase your tendency to feel sluggish. It is best to avoid these foods to feel light and energized throughout winter.

Exercise


Exercise is crucial during the winter – but you need to warm up to your activities. Movement generates heat, promotes circulation, strengthens muscle tone and produces endorphins.
  • Stretch before exercise: Stretching helps you prevent injury and muscle spasms due to the cold. Warming up loosens muscles and ligaments and lubricates the joints.
  • Relax post workouts: To help relax sore muscles after activity, enjoy warm epsom salt baths which helps reduce muscle tension.  Massages are also beneficial for sore muscles.
  • Customize exercise: If you have joint conditions, speak to your naturopathic doctor about what kind of exercise is suitable for you so you have the right balance of movement without over-doing it. There is no "one-size-fits-all" when it comes to exercise. 

Relief With Naturopathic & Ayurvedic Therapies

When you have tried the above and are still struggling with joint pain or muscle stiffness, it is best that you speak to your naturopathic doctor who can help identify other factors that may be impacting your health. If you are unable to enjoy winter activities due to pain or are worried about stepping out due to fear of slipping, it is important to seek professional guidance to address your muscle & joint issues so that you enjoy this season.

If you are young and active, but finding recovery time is slower, naturopathic medicine can help improve your recovery time. Even if you are on conventional medication for joint pain, there are many more natural ways to reduce your discomfort with Ayurvedic and naturopathic medicine. The next time you notice you wake up with a stiff neck or find it difficult to bend your joints – listen to your body and take steps to address it before it gets worse. Chronic diseases develop over time. When you catch imbalances early it is much easier to address than in more advanced stages. With the necessary self-care techniques, in addition to naturopathic care, you can get relief from muscle and joint pain and prevent chronic disease. Joints and muscles are what allow you to move - if you take care of them, they will take you where you want to go.


Dr. Leena Athparia is a naturopathic doctor at Naturopathic Foundations with a focus in musculoskeletal conditions related to aging, metabolic issues and chronic disease. If you are experiencing joint or muscle pain, please call the clinic at 905-940-2727 to book an appointment with Dr. Athparia.