How to manage those winter aches and pains

Feeling the cold weather in your bones? Try these tips from a UAlberta pain expert.


The colder the weather, the more your bones seem to ache—is it a myth, or is there something to it?

“It’s a thing,” confirms Geoff Bostick, a University of Alberta assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine. “It’s common to hear people with joint pain or osteoarthritis say the pain is worse when temperatures drop.”

It was once thought to be anecdotal, but that theory has been backed by recent European research showing there is a greater risk of joint pain when there are changes in humidity and temperature, he said.

So if you suffer from pre-existing aches and pains, how do you best cope with the extra hit that Old Man Winter doles out during Edmonton’s cold snaps?

Stay active

Bostick, a specialist in treating chronic and complex pain, advises staying active—even at a scaled-down level.

“Don’t stop activity, but shorten the distance or the intensity. It’s harder to exercise in the winter, so it takes more planning and patience to do it, but it is important to find time for (it),” he said. “We have to find a way to move in winter, whether that’s taking it indoors or finding a way to be safe outdoors when exercising.

And get creative about exercising, added Bostick, who rides his fat bike.

“Some people do mall walking. There are lots of great snow hills to take the kids tobogganing, or maybe stop on the way home from work in the river valley and take a walk. If you dress for it, you can still walk outside.”

Resist the urge to sit it out

We also tend to sit more during winter, which is a health issue, he said.

“Excessive sitting can negate the benefits of an exercise session,” Bostick said.

He uses a standing desk at work, but even without one, he said people should make sure they get to their feet for timed breaks, or take walking meetings or visit rather than email a business colleague.

Do a little longer warm-up

Along with everyday aches and pains, winter-related injuries can also take a toll on our bodies. Almost 13,000 winter-related injuries were reported last year by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, ranging from falls on the ice to accidents involving skis, snowboards, skates, snowmobiles, tobogganing and hockey.

Warming up the muscles before any activity is key to decreasing the chance of straining ligaments and tendons—the connective tissues in our bodies that keep us moving.

“You need a longer warm-up to prepare the body for wintertime, because it’s colder and we are generally less active. For example, we get tightness in our hip flexors and hamstring muscles from sitting more,” Bostick said. Warm-ups also get the blood flowing to the muscles we want to fire up.

Mimicking the activity you plan to be doing is a great way to warm up, he suggested.

“If you are cross-country skiing, for instance, starting at a lower intensity is the best way to prepare for it. If you have flexibility problems, stretch consistently throughout the day leading up to it.”

And if you do manage to hurt yourself seriously—as in broken or dislocated bones—a trip to the hospital is necessary.

Lesser pains and strains may fall into a grey area, but it’s better safe than sorry when it comes to getting medical advice, Bostick said.

“When you experience pain, your body is telling you it feels under threat. And it’s easier to manage those problems when they are minor, as opposed to waiting a month or six weeks when the condition is harder to manage.”

Don’t skip out on sleep

At the end of the day, regardless of what exercise you’ve done, sleep is the other key ingredient to beating winter’s woes.

“There’s a little bit less room for error for personal wellness in winter. We move less, mood is lower and we tend not to sleep as well. This makes us more vulnerable to pain,” said Bostick.

“Good sleep habits—going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, sleeping in a dark room and avoiding caffeine before bed—are important. It’s part of taking care of yourself.”