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Tips on reducing your chances of an injury as it gets colder

Going for my early bird swim at Dee Why pool this weekend it took a few minutes longer than usual for my muscles and joints to really get going. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I got out of the pool and a fresh gust of wind reminded me… Winter Is Coming. Checking the weather and in 2 days the minimum temperature has dropped 7 degrees. Did you know that May, June and July are the busiest months for sport and exercise related injuries in Australia?[1] While you can attribute some of that rise to the winter contact ball sports, a contributor to the rise in muscle and tendon related injuries is the drop in temperature. The muscles and ligaments of the body function and perform better when they are warmer. It’s also easier to get out of bed and actually go on that early morning run too when it’s not 5 degrees. Let’s look at how the cold affects the performance and injury rate of the muscles and tendons and how you can lower your chances of a cold related injury.

Can cold weather make joints and muscles hurt more?

My Dad is one of those people who say that his joints can predict the weather, “a cold front is coming through” he’d say on a 30 degree day and it did seem like he picked it once or twice (little did I know at the time that he constantly consulted the Bureau of Meteorology as much as Gen-Y checks Facebook). But let’s just say science is far less convinced than he and a few other patients of mine who are convinced that their arthritic conditions can predict the weather. Over the years a number of studies have looked at the correlation between temperature, weather and barometric pressure with none being totally conclusive.[2] That being said, some studies have shown a plausible link between barometric pressure and cold weather on some specific arthritic conditions or under less strict conditions.[3] If you believe your joints hurt more in the cold, I’m not going to not believe you.

Increase your warm-up time and quality

This is probably the single most important piece of advice if you are undertaking any physical activity during the winter months.[4] Cold muscles and ligaments mixed with physical activity are going to equal a lot of pain. Cold muscles, tendons and ligaments are more likely to lead to muscle sprains and joint strains due to decreased flexibility and elasticity.[5] If you normally warm up for 5 minutes, extend it to 10 as it gets colder, if you normally don’t warm up, extending that to 10 minutes is fine too.  A good warm-up:

  • Prepares the body and mind for the activity
  • Increases the body’s core temperature
  • Increases the heart rate
  • Increases breathing rate
  • Stimulates flexibility and power

Don’t skimp on the cool-down either!

Many musculoskeletal physiotherapists will agree that failing to cool down adequately is a major contributor to muscular and tendon injuries. I don’t know why but it doesn’t seem like it’s cool to cool down. After physical exercise the body needs time to slow down and recover, so cool down immediately after your activity for at least 5 to10 minutes. Sports and exercise physiotherapists recommend your cool-down can be the same sort of exercise as the warm-up with low intensity body movement such as jogging or walking substituted for running.

Can stretching help to reduce injuries?

Stretching before and after physical activity helps to promote maximum flexibility, relax the muscles, return them to their resting length and promotes recovery by assisting in the body’s natural repair process. When stretching it is important to:

  • Stretch all muscle groups that will be or were involved in the activity
  • Stretch gently and slowly
  • Don’t bounce or try and stretch too quickly
  • Only ever stretch to the point of mild discomfort – PAIN DOES NOT EQUAL GAIN
  • Don’t hold your breath – breathe slow and easy

Don’t forget to stay hydrated

While it may not be scorching hot outside your body is still going to need a healthy dose of water daily. Dehydration is one of the major causes of muscle cramps and the winter months are an easy time to lost sight of drinking a couple of litres of the good stuff every day. Please don’t think a couple of shots of something harder will warm you up either, alcohol will only impair your coordination and your body’s ability to regulate your temperature which could lead to an injury. Caffeine drinks also cause dehydration, so steer clear of excessive coffee and energy drinks too if you can.

[1] https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/injury/hospital-care-for-australian-sports-injury-2012-13/contents/table-of-contents

[2] The influence of weather on the risk of pain exacerbation in patients with knee osteoarthritis – a case-crossover study. Ferreira, M.L. et al. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage , Volume 24 , Issue 12 , 2042 – 2047

[3] Deall C, Majeed H (2016) Effect of Cold Weather on the Symptoms of Arthritic Disease: A Review of the Literature. J Gen Pract (Los Angel) 4:275. doi: 10.4172/2329-9126.1000275

[4] Woods K, Bishop P, Jones E. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Med 2007;37:1089-1099.

[5] Scott, E E F et al. “Increased risk of muscle tears below physiological temperature ranges.” Bone & joint research vol. 5,2 (2016): 61-5. doi:10.1302/2046-3758.52.2000484

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