Winter Can be Hard on the Body

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As a major snowstorm hits Tennessee and North Carolina to the southern New England states, and Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities it is important to realize that winter can be hard on the body.

Heart attacks and other heart conditions tend to be more common in the winter. Cold lowers the heart's supply of blood, while exertion raises the demand for it. This imbalance between supply and demand can also cause attacks of chest pain.

When your body gets cold, blood vessels constrict. "If you already have plaque built up in your arteries, that constriction can decrease blood flow to the heart, leading to symptoms and a heart attack," says Jennifer Mieres, director of cardiology at the New York University School of Medicine. If you have risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels Mieres suggest people take extra care to stay warm.

A decade-long study of 66,346 hip fractures in New York City found that, at least in that city, hip fracture rates were highest in winter, especially on the coldest and windiest days. "In cold weather, people venture out less, so theoretically, that could be a protective factor," says Joseph Zuckerman, an orthopedic surgeon who helped conduct that study and is president of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. "But when people do go out, there are greater risks, including ice patches."

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It is thought that winter inactivity weakens muscles, making falls more likely. “It's wise to practice defensive walking,” Zuckerman says, “Watch where you are going. If you need a walker or cane, use it. Inside, get rid of loose rugs and other clutter and install a night light.”

Winter is a time when we not only catch colds and flu but when chronic ailments are exacerbated by the cold, wind and damp. People with arthritis may experience their condition worsening in the winter months with even achier bones and joints.

"Some studies have shown that about 70 percent of people with arthritis are weather sensitive," notes Dave Terlizzi, director of the new Kimball Institute for Rehabilitative and Occupational Health Services. "Women and those with osteoarthritis may be slightly more affected by weather changes than men and people with other types of arthritis."

"That's why it is essential for people who have arthritis, and those who could potentially acquire the disease, to exercise and avoid becoming a couch potato during the winter months," Terlizzi states.

Cold and damp weather can cause tendons, ligaments and muscles surrounding joints to contract, and cavities in joints can be affected by atmospheric pressure. It is still unknown why some people are affected by weather and others are not.

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