It’s not unusual to have a temporary problem with your knees. But a frequent or persistent extreme cold sensation in your knees can be distracting.
Having “cold knees” isn’t necessarily related to the weather. In these situations, the sensation can’t be relieved with a blanket or more clothing. And if you also have knee pain or range-of-motion problems, it can interfere with your ability to function.
Keep reading to learn some of the causes of cold knees, as well as signs that it’s time to see your doctor.
A variety of things can cause your knees to feel unusually cold. Some involve only the area around your knees or legs. Some are underlying conditions that can make you feel cold over a larger part of your body. These conditions usually have additional symptoms.
Osteoarthritis of the knee
Arthritis is a group of conditions that involve inflammation in your joints. Osteoarthritis is the result of gradual wear and tear of the cartilage in the joint. Knee arthritis is a major cause of disability. The main symptoms are:
Some people with osteoarthritis of the knee experience increased sensitivity to cold. A 2017 study notes that when compared with the control group, these patients also had:
- decreased physical health
- lower pressure pain threshold in the knee
- increased pain
- greater functional impairment
- more features of neuropathic pain
These symptoms may point to increased central sensitization of the knee. Women are more likely than men to report that their knees are affected by cold weather.
Damage to the peripheral nerves is called peripheral neuropathy. While it mainly affects hands and feet, it can affect other areas of your body, including your knees.
The peripheral nerves transmit messages between your central nervous system and the rest of your body. A disruption in these messages can lead to:
- freezing, burning, or stabbing pain
- extreme sensitivity to touch
- numbness or tingling that begins in your feet or hands and spreads into your arms and legs
Causes of neuropathy include:
- accidental trauma to the nerves
- overuse injuries
- alcohol use disorder
- vitamin deficiencies
- exposure to toxic substances
- chemotherapy drugs
- bone marrow disorders
- Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease
Neuropathy can also be due to autoimmune diseases such as:
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
- necrotizing vasculitis
- rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjögren’s syndrome
Or infections such as:
Peripheral artery disease
In peripheral artery disease, there’s a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in arteries that service vital organs and your legs. This can cause blood to clot, blocking blood flow to your legs. That can lead to:
- one leg having a lower temperature than the other
- skin that looks pale or blue
- no pulse in your leg or foot
- wounds that don’t heal well
- poor toenail growth
- decreased hair on your legs
- erectile dysfunction
Risk factors for this condition include:
Raynaud’s phenomenon is a condition in which you have episodes of narrowing of your blood vessels, or vasospasm. These episodes are triggered by cold temperatures or stress.
During a vasospasm, there’s a reduction of blood flow from your heart to the rest of your body. This usually affects your fingers and toes, but it’s possible in your legs and knees as well. Areas of your skin may turn pale, white, or even blue. You might feel cold or numb.
Then, as blood begins to flow freely again, color returns. You might feel a throbbing, tingling, or burning sensation.
- difficulty tolerating cold
- joint and muscle pain
- dry skin
- weight gain
There are a variety of causes for hypothyroidism, including:
- Hashimoto’s disease
- radiation treatment on your thyroid
- thyroid surgery
- inflammation of your thyroid
Treatment for arthritis of the knee may involve:
- physical therapy
- cortisone injections
- surgery, including joint replacement
Because there are several other things that can cause cold knees, it’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis. That’s especially true if you also have pain or mobility issues.
Once you have a diagnosis, treating the underlying condition may ease your symptoms and help decrease sensitivity to cold.
Since treatment depends on the cause, getting the correct diagnosis is vital. Signs that it’s time to see your doctor include:
- persistent or frequent coldness of your knee
- pain that interferes with quality of life
- difficulty fully extending your knee
- redness, swelling, tender to the touch
- problems with multiple joints
- thickening or tightening of skin or other obvious deformity
- worsening condition, such as arthritis or diabetes
And, of course, see your doctor if you have recently experienced a knee injury.
Getting to the root of the problem will probably start with a physical examination. Your doctor will also want a complete medical history. Be sure to discuss any preexisting conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. Also, mention all other symptoms, even if they don’t seem related.
Tell your doctor if you experience cold in other parts of your body or if you have trouble tolerating cold temperatures in general. This can aid in choosing which diagnostic tests will be most helpful.
You might need imaging tests to check for injury, nerve damage, arthritis, or other problems. Blood tests may be needed to check vitamin and glucose levels, as well as thyroid function.
Results will help guide the next steps.