As the temperature falls the pain in your injured knee seems to increase. Is this a real phenomenon or simply due to the fact that aches and pains tend to feel worse in the winter? No, you are not imagining it, the fact is that certain types of knee injury really do become more painful when it turns colder and there are some clear scientific reasons for this.
The science behind the stiffness
In colder weather, the fluid in your knees can become slightly thicker. This fluid acts like a shock absorber and as it thickens it can be prevented from flowing properly around the joint, reducing its efficiency and causing increased stiffness.
The onset of cold weather also causes the barometric pressure to drop. This is the weight of the air around you and as it drops it can cause the fluids and gases in your joint to expand, putting additional pressure on the nerves and causing pain.
Inflammation, scarring or adhesions may cause the nerves in the knee joint to become hypersensitive to cold weather and if the cold temperatures are accompanied by high humidity, it may even affect the cellular structures of cartilage and bone.
On top of this, one of the by-products of cold weather is that we tend to become less active and spend more time indoors. This, too, is bad for the joints and can lead to an increase in pain perception when less of the normal pain distractions in daily life are present.
Increased risk of injury
If you do participate in outdoor sports when it’s cold, injuries are more common because muscles and connective tissues are less elastic in low temperatures and more prone to injury. Slips and falls are also more common, increasing the risk of soft tissue injuries.
Not all knee injuries are affected by cold weather. However, if you have trauma to your knee, you are likely to experience increased pain because your muscles have to work harder during cold temperatures and this can increase damage to muscle tissues, resulting in soreness.
Patellar tendonitis (also known as jumper’s knee)…
…is also likely to become more painful because low temperatures cause the tendons to become stiffer and reduce normal healing blood circulation. This type of injury, which is the result of damage to the tendon tissues between the kneecap and lower legion (tibia), causes weakness and stiffness in the knee. Sufferers may find it difficult to climb stairs, kneel or jump.
…is the colloquial term for a range of knee injuries linked to overuse, often as a result of running. These include patellofemoral pain syndrome, chondromalacia patellae and iliotibial syndrome.
Injury occurs when downward pressure on the knee joint causes the kneecap to rub against the end of the thigh bone (femur), resulting in cartilage wear and tear damage. When the weather is cold your heart rate slows down causing a reduction in lubrication to tissues and muscles including those around the knee. Knees can become sore, achy and stiff as a result.
Ease the pain for the rest of the winter season
If you experience pain and stiffness in cold weather, try to stay warm by wearing layers of warm clothing, taking warm baths or showers and using an electric blanket or hot water bottle. Using compression bands may help to support your knees and help to minimise swelling. It is important that these knee adjuncts are not overly tight to cause possible additional leg problems.
Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy body weight can also help to reduce pressure on your knee joint. However, always remember to warm up well, particularly during cold weather when knee joints are more prone to injury.
If you do injure yourself seek medical advice as continuing to exercise damaged muscles, ligaments or tendons may cause further damage which could take longer than needed to settle and heal.