‘Tis the season for colder weather, shorter days, a busier-than-normal schedule, and added joint pain. For many people living with joint discomfort, the holidays can be an especially stressful and painful time of year. The added shopping, traveling and general busyness of the season can contribute to flare-ups of inflammation and stiffness.
“The winter months are typically a busy time of year for us in orthopedics,” says Jeff McGowen, M.D., orthopedic surgeon at Texas Hip and Knee Center, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “Unfortunately, the stress of the holiday season is a common trigger of hip, knee and other joint pain flare-ups. This is because stress causes the body’s inflammatory response system to kick in, and the joints bear the brunt of this activity with increased pain, stiffness and other symptoms.”
“Joint pain may be caused by chronic disease such as osteoarthritis or more acute conditions like ligament sprains and meniscus tears. It often comes and goes over time, and a flare-up is an episode of severe pain. A flare may last just a few days and be easily treated, last longer than a week and require reduced activity, or last several weeks and require more serious treatment options. Flare-ups can be mild, moderate, or severe and are triggered by many of the things people experience during the holiday season,” McGowen adds.
Routine first aid treatments, including rest, icing, compression, and elevation may be helpful regardless of the cause of pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen may be used to lessen the pain associated with joint injuries or arthritis, but these drugs may interact with other medicines you are taking and can have side effects such as ulcer formation, or kidney or liver injury. Your doctor may be able to help calm an arthritic flare-up in some locations with therapeutic joint injections.
Although a stress-free holiday season may not be possible, McGowen suggests some ways to manage the symptoms of joint pain outside of medications to better enjoy the spirit of the season.
- Minimize your trips. Although flare-ups are not always predictable, holiday shopping trips with excessive walking and lifting may lead to discomfort. Sedentary actions such as long-distance travel by car, plane or other means, can also contribute. Prolonged standing in lines at the airport or sitting in a car can be especially hard on the hip and knee joints.
- Watch what you eat. Gout is a severe inflammation of joints, particularly the big toe and the knees, triggered by diet. Common triggers include beer, wine, cheeses and organ meats that are contained in some traditional turkey dressings. Moderation is key to prevention for most people, but some individuals should avoid their triggers altogether to ward off having a hot, swollen, very painful joint the next day. Cherries are one food known to lessen joint inflammation.
- Exercise still matters. A packed schedule this time of year can mean that some activities will get pushed aside. To make sure exercise isn’t one of them, try to find even 5-10 minutes several times a day for aerobic activity, stretching or yoga to help manage pain and improve your mental health. Low impact aerobic exercise has been shown to improve function and lesson severity of pain in individuals with osteoarthritis of the hips and knees. Swimming, exercise bikes, elliptical machines, and cross country ski machines are all good options, but simply engaging in a walk each day works too.
- Spread out activities. If you are not exercising already, building endurance slowly is important to avoid aggravating the joints. Try whittling down the shopping list by making trips to individual stores over several days until you build the stamina required to take on the mall parking lot in December. Strengthening your core will allow you to participate in those activities that make this time of year so special.
“Although moving around might be the last thing you really want to do when you’re dealing with joint pain, staying active is one of the best things you can do for your body,” McGowen notes. “Just remember to be careful playing backyard football after Thanksgiving dinner and even more careful going shopping on Black Friday.”
“We’re seeing more younger individuals with joint complaints so much of our focus today is on finding and providing solutions that keep active individuals active. When anti-inflammatory medications, home exercises and/or physical therapy no longer provide sufficient pain relief, it may be time to consider joint replacement,” McGowen adds.
How do you know if joint replacement is right for you? McGowen says it starts with finding a joint replacement specialist who can help you explore your options for a more active lifestyle free from chronic pain.