While many people with chronic pain find that it’s worse in the winter, it turns out that summer’s heat and humidity can also lead to joint pain. At Arizona Pain, we know extreme heat. With an average high of 104° and a low of 78° in June, the huge swings in Phoenix’s temperatures can wreak havoc on already-aching joints. Joint pain in summer is a thing we know how to treat. This is what you should know, how to prevent summer joint pain, and your treatment options.
Do I really have more joint pain in summer?
Maybe you think you are imagining things and that the swelling and ache in your joints is not real. Unfortunately, joint pain in summer is all-too common as the mercury soars.
Why does joint pain in summer increase?
One of the main culprits of joint pain in summer is dehydration. Especially in dry climates like Arizona, your sweat may evaporate before you notice it’s there. This means that you are losing more fluid than you realize, even when you are at rest (or asleep!).
This dehydration increases friction in the joints that rely on hydration to stay healthy. Ball-and-socket joints like the hips and shoulders suffer especially from a lack of proper hydration, but all joints are susceptible.
Arizona’s climate is perfect for many year-round outdoor activities, but when the temperature rises, many of us head inside or reduce the length of our exercise outside.
Reduced activity levels for joints that relied on daily movement to stay healthy can be felt nearly immediately. In some cases, reducing your activity can cause worsening or referred pain (e.g., back pain) as the body compensates for the painful joint.
The huge changes in temperature can make a person’s mind suffer, and the same holds true for that person’s body!
Tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue inside the joints expand and contract with each rise and fall of the thermometer. Over the course of the day, this can actually increase joint pain in summer.
While many people move to Arizona specifically for the dry climate, we can also get some gully washers that roll through in the summertime. When this happens, the pressure in the atmosphere drops—and so does the pressure in your body. You might think that this would be good for inflamed joints, but the joints respond differently to a dropping barometer.
In a quest to maintain stability and balance, the tissues in the joints swell to fill the joint capsule as the pressure drops. This can press on already-inflamed tissues or cause issues with mobility that lead to pain. Many people experience this as swelling in the joints or a decreased range of motion. If you’re experiencing summertime in dry climates like Arizona you may actually have more of this type of weather-related pain than in winter.
What about rheumatoid arthritis in hot weather?
Rheumatoid arthritis in hot weather can also be a perfect storm of swelling and inflammation caused by too little activity, dehydration, and barometric changes.
Complicating things even more, dealing with any kind of arthritis in summer can mean a tricky balance between too much water and not enough. Some people experience more water retention in their joints, which can be very painful, while others cannot get enough fluid into their body.
What’s the connection between humidity and inflammation?
Although cold and wet is the worst combination for joint pain, hot and humid is a close second. Joints have sensory nerves in them that respond to the conditions both inside and outside your body. When the humidity rises along with the temperature, a corresponding drop in pressure creates space in your joint. The body responds by expanding the ligaments and tendons to fill the joint. Humidity also affects the amount of fluid that is present in the joint. Less fluid means more friction and pain with each movement.
In a healthy joint, this expansion and slight decrease in joint lubrication may result in minor stiffness until the joint is warmed up. But humidity and inflammation can affect an already-compromised joint and potentially lead to further damage and pain.
How to manage arthritis in summer
The good news: you don’t have to suffer from joint pain in summer, and you can still do all of the things you love. In fact, keeping activity levels the same year-round can be one of the best things you do not only for your physical but also your mental health.
There are some precautions you can take to help prevent joint pain in summer (and manage if it occurs). Here’s our guide to getting started. If you’re ever unsure, we recommend reaching out to your doctor for guidance or contact the Arizona Pain team (if you’re in Arizona) for help.
Exercise, but with caution
As long as your doctor has approved it, continue to exercise even during the hottest times of the year. Do it by making summertime modifications.
For example, you can beat the heat by exercising very early in the morning or after the sun has set. Take many breaks and stay in the shade if you can even during the cooler parts of the day.
Or, modify how and where you exercise. If you are an avid tennis player, see if you can find an indoor tennis facility to make playing more comfortable. Consider switching to a “summer sport” to keep your whole body fit. Instead of jogging, why not try swimming instead? This low-impact, full-body exercise works every muscle that jogging does, safely and out of the heat.
Need something low intensity? Join friends to do laps around a large indoor mall. You can also invest in a treadmill and watch an episode of your favorite TV show while walking at a moderate pace. If you’re short on space, time, and money, check out free exercise videos online for a quick cardio boosting workout.
After your workout, ensure you rehydrate and cool the body down slowly.
The most important thing you can do for joint pain in summer is to stay hydrated. Sure, water is often the recommended beverage, but in very hot climates where sweat is nearly nonexistent because the heat is dry, it pays to mind your electrolytes, too.
Look for drinks that have the essential minerals of salt, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. These minerals regulate many different functions in the body, from managing muscle contractions to regulating the nervous system.
Electrolytes can also be found in a variety of foods, including:
- Soy milk
- Coconut water
To get enough liquid, you can also eat foods that are “watery,” like greens, sweet peppers, melons, and berries.
During the summer months, also avoid drinks with excessive caffeine and sugar, as these can cause dehydration. Alcoholic beverages also increase urination, which can lead to dehydration. If you are consuming alcohol, make sure to have a glass of water for each drink you consume.
Finally, another good way to ingest electrolytes is through the largest organ in your body: your skin. A relaxing Epsom salts bath cools the body and delivers magnesium transdermally, good for hydration and a proper night’s sleep!
There is lots of research on how poor sleep affects chronic pain, and none of it is good. In the summer, sleep may be even more elusive. The longer days, coupled with hot nights, may make drifting off harder than normal.
Take the time to “summer proof” your sleep. Install blackout shades in your room if the early sunrise cuts your slumber short. Turn down the thermostat at night. Choose breathable cotton sheets and light (or no) sleeping clothes. Finally, consider bringing a cool washcloth to sleep if you are having a hard time bringing your body temperature down.
Focus on healthy food
A big bonus of summertime is the increased access to delicious, fresh food. Abundant summer vegetables at every farmer’s market means you can have a dinner that was standing fresh in the field that morning.
But summer also brings barbecues, ice cream socials, and pitchers of beer and sangria. Eating healthy food year-round is a great way to reduce joint pain in the summer by maintaining a healthy BMI and decreasing food-related inflammation. It can be challenging in the wintertime to find inflammation-reducing cherries in the grocery store, but in summer, they are literally falling off the trees.
The best diet for arthritis in summer is one that is easy, delicious, and anti-inflammatory. Reach for abundant fruits and vegetables, lean proteins on the grill, and healthy whole grains like quinoa and brown rice.
Stick with your medical routine
We know how it goes: all you want to do in the summertime is take off work, laze in the midday sun, and run away to the beach. But if you have an established treatment protocol for your joint pain, in summer it’s crucial to stick with it.
This includes things like sticking to physical therapy schedules and taking medications as directed. Seems like common sense, but it can be challenging to stick to a schedule when it feels like the days are endless and no one else has a schedule. Use your phone to set alarms and reminders to stay on track!
Don’t forget to relax
And speaking of endless days with no schedules, one of the ironic things about summer is that it can be really hard to just relax. With vacations to plan, kids to manage, and the go-go-go vibe of the season, we can get wrapped up and stressed out by something that’s supposed to be fun and relaxing.
Take a break every day to simply sit somewhere quiet and breathe. There is a Zen proverb: if you don’t have time to meditate for an hour, then you should meditate for two hours. You don’t need to go to those extremes, but there is plenty of research that shows that mindfulness meditation for just 20 minutes a day can go a long way to reducing your chronic pain (and the stress it comes with).
Does summer make other pain conditions worse?
Summer’s high temperatures and humidity can make other pain conditions worse, too. Be aware of any other conditions you may experiencing beyond joint pain, like:
- Headaches and migraines can be explosive in the summer, prompted by shifts in the barometer, air pollution, and dehydration
- Summer’s hot, humid air can increase the pain and frequency of fibromyalgia flare-ups
- Heat can also worsen the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, including back pain, muscle spasms, and trigeminal neuralgia
As with joint pain in summer, many of these conditions can be eased by bringing the body temperature down and taking proper precautions. Continue getting moderate exercise, prioritize sleep, and stay hydrated.
Get help for your joint pain in summer
At Arizona Pain, we’re out there in the heat right alongside you. We know how to treat joint pain in the summer because so many of our patients experience it firsthand. Along with these preventative measures, there are pain management approaches that can help if you’re experiencing severe pain that’s impacting your overall quality of life.
If you’re in Arizona, get in touch today to see how we can help.