Winter is associated with a range of positives–speeding down hills on sleds or skis, opening Christmas presents and scarfing comfort foods like chili and grilled cheese sandwiches, for example. Unfortunately, it’s also a time of year when many people suffer increased physical pain because of the cold. There are a handful of scientific reasons why you might be hurting since the temperature dropped, and once you understand them, you can fight back.

What You Might Be Feeling

Cold weather routinely results in sore or stiff joints. The cold also can bring on muscle discomfort and related problems, such as tension headaches. Another very common complaint that leads people to pain relief experts in the winter months is dry skin. This issue might seem relatively benign, but for some individuals, dryness becomes severe and leads to excruciating cracking and bleeding, which can be exacerbated by factors like hot showers, abrasive cloths and harsh soaps.

What’s Likely Causing Your Agony

When it’s cold outside, the molecules in the air around you move more slowly and with less energy. They fail to collide with each other (and you) as much as a result. You perceive this as a drop in air pressure. With less air pressure, virtually everything inside your body can expand a little more. The trouble is, the expansion sometimes puts pressure on nerves. Experts theorize that, if the pressure is significant enough, you can experience an uptick in pain and other related nerve symptoms, such as numbness or tingling.

Molecules in the air and inside of you also have attractive forces that try to pull them closer together. Low energy (heat) makes it more difficult for the molecules to overcome these forces, so they condense. This effect can cause pain first because it thickens the synovial fluid in your joints, which acts as a natural lubricant–thicker fluid simply can’t move and coat the structures of the joint as well. Secondly, it makes it difficult for muscle tissues to stay long, relaxed and flexible. Instead, muscles contract, decreasing your range of motion, pulling with more force on the joints and increasing your risk of tears.

Colder, more condensed air generally cannot hold as much moisture, meaning that humidity typically goes down in the winter. The lack of humidity means you lose moisture from your sweat glands at a much faster rate than you otherwise would, the end result being dry skin.

As you experience more and more pain because of the cold, your first instinct, however subconscious, probably will be to stop moving so much. A lack of movement is a bad idea, however, because, over time, it weakens muscles. You lose strength and balance control, which might lead to an injury or aggravate conditions you already have.

How to Combat Cold Pain

Understanding what’s happening to your environment and your body on the molecular level, simple strategies might help you reduce or eliminate your pain. Dressing in layers, for example, will help hold heat in the body, and heating pads can help muscles and fluids stay loose. Massage may help, as well, as it promotes good circulation. You also should warm up before you perform physical activities, and continuing regular exercise is important. Experts who specialize in pain relief can evaluate you to determine which strategy might be most effective for you.