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How Cold Weather Affects Sports Injuries | Dr. Gombera MD

How Cold Weather Affects Sports Injuries | Dr. Gombera MD

If you've noticed that your joints and muscles tend to be stiffer in cold weather, you're not alone. Whether you're a varsity competitor, recreational athlete or your job involves physical labor, winter's chill may impact the way your muscles and joints respond to what you ask of them. But how does cold weather affect injuries and the way your body moves?

In this article, we'll look at the impact of cold weather on muscles, the relationship between muscles and cold weather and common cold-weather injuries. Keep reading to learn how the cold may be affecting your body and how to protect yourself this winter.

How Does Cold Weather Impact Injuries?

The cold impairs your body's ability to function efficiently by requiring more energy to maintain a normal body temperature. When cold, your body will do whatever it takes to make sure your core body temperature is consistent, allowing the limb muscles to lose the most heat by limiting blood flow to them. This internal regulation process makes the muscles in your legs and arms more prone to injury in cold weather.

Even if you don't feel as though your limbs are noticeably cold, colder temperatures can impact your nerve chemistry and the way your muscles perform. Because muscular contraction and nerve impulses require a string of complex chemical reactions that occur more slowly under cooler conditions, your muscles perform less efficiently in the cold. 

Less efficient muscles and a slower reaction time can lead to a higher rate of injury in the cold, especially during fast-paced activities like sports. Without their usual quickness or elasticity, your muscles, tendons and ligaments are at a higher risk for strains, pulls, tears and other types of injury. Cold weather may also exacerbate existing injuries by causing an already bothersome muscle or tendon to tense up or tighten.

Why Do More Injuries Happen When It's Cold?

Because of the extra demands cold weather places on your body to maintain its core body temperature, it takes more energy to keep muscles functioning at their highest capacity. This need for additional energy makes it easier to overexert yourself in colder conditions. Exhaustion results in muscle fatigue, which makes the body more vulnerable to joint injuries and muscle strains.

Colder muscles are also more prone to injury because they are naturally less efficient and have less stamina than warm muscles. Warm muscles can rely on their slow-twitch fibers for endurance-focused aerobic activity and reserve their fast-twitch fibers for short bursts of extra power. However, cold muscles must use both their slow- and fast-twitch fibers to generate the same amount of energy they would when warm, eating up their oxygen supply and making them weaker.

Weakened muscles often don't have the strength to resist injury as effectively as they usually could and break down more readily. Going through a thorough warmup routine before exercising in the cold is one of the most dependable ways to protect your muscles and joints from injury. Keep your muscles safe by doing some light cardio and dynamic stretches to get your blood flowing before diving into more intense physical activity.

In addition to properly warming up, pay attention to whenever your body starts to shiver, as shivering tends to be the earliest sign of potentially dangerous cold exposure. Shivers are uncontrolled muscle contractions that indicate your body is struggling to create heat. Consider seeking shelter and warming up indoors once you start to shiver.

How Does the Cold Impact Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons?

Whenever the temperature dips below about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it takes less energy to cause muscle tears because colder muscle tissue is stiffer and more prone to damage. It's already essential to properly warm your muscles up in typical conditions, but it's even more crucial to make sure your muscles are ready to move and react quickly in cold weather.

With the body making a more concerted effort to keep the core warm, the muscles may not be experiencing enough blood flow to give them the flexibility they need to accommodate physical activity. Consequently, tightness will begin to set in throughout the body as the cold weather continues to make muscles lose heat and contract. Tighter joints restrict the usual range of motion in muscles, making them more susceptible to tears or strains, and creating the conditions that could lead to pinched nerves.

These are four of the most at-risk muscle groups in cold conditions.

  1. Knees: As the muscles and tissues surrounding the knee become stiffer and less lubricated in cold conditions, the knee ligaments become more vulnerable to tears and strains. For instance, anterior cruciate ligament tears are among the most common skiing injuries because the knee ligaments are already susceptible to injury in the cold.
  2. Shoulders: An improperly warmed-up shoulder joint won't have the necessary range of motion to perform well without tearing or straining the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments. Shoulder injuries like a rotator cuff tear are far more likely to happen when the tendons around the shoulder socket are not warm enough to easily move the arm.
  3. Hips: As your largest weight-bearing joint, the hip needs a thorough warmup to function smoothly without damaging ligaments or pulling on the leg muscles. Excessive tightness or stiffness from the cold can lead to a major hip injury, such as a labral tear.
  4. Elbows: As a smaller joint, the elbow is especially susceptible to strains and other injuries. Stiff elbows will not have the flexibility necessary to prevent overextension and stress on the supporting tendons and ligaments.

Aside from severe injury, it is normal to feel more sore than usual after exercising in cooler temperatures. Because cold weather forces your muscles to work harder to complete the same tasks they could more easily perform in warmer weather, the muscle tissues become more damaged in the cold, which results in more soreness.

Contact Dr. Mufaddal Gombera If You Experience Any Sports Injuries to the Knee, Hip, Shoulder or Elbow

Even after a rigorous warmup routine, injuries can still happen in the cold weather. If you experience an injury to your knee, hip, shoulder or elbow, contact Dr. Mufaddal Gombera to receive specialized treatment and expert care. As a board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Gombera knows how to use the latest treatments to get patients back on their feet as quickly as possible.

Located in the heart of Houston, Dr. Gombera's practice at Fondren Orthopedic Group and Texas Orthopedic Hospital welcomes anyone looking for customized care for their knee, hip, shoulder or elbow injury. Through using minimally invasive methods, Dr. Gombera and his team help patients quickly get back to their everyday activities, often without the need for surgery.

Book an appointment at Dr. Gombera's office today to start your road to recovery or call 713-794-3457 for more information.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine Arthroscopy Association of North America american shoulder and elbow society international society for hip arthroscopy