The amount of research regarding cold weather and pain is surprisingly limited. Although modern medicine has spent considerable effort studying pain conditions, relatively little has been devoted to understanding how it’s affected by cold temperatures.
It may seem silly to discuss this topic in a place like Tucson, Arizona, until you look at the dramatic swings just this week- 70’s on the weekend to 40’s midweek, and hard freeze temperatures at night!
One thing I can tell you, ask anyone who suffers from chronic pain issues and they’ll say the same thing- cold hurts. Cold weather and pain tend to go hand in hand, so it’s important to understand the influence it exerts and ways to mitigate the impact.
How Temperature Affects the Human Body
We are most comfortable when the body’s natural temperature stays at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and the environment is in the70s. Anything too different from this can cause minor discomfort, to outright death. There are many possible explanations for why lower temperatures affect joints. One theory relates to drops in barometric pressure, which cause tendons, muscles and the surrounding tissues to expand. Because of the confined space within these areas, this can cause muscles, tendons and ligaments to tense and stiffen, aggravating pain. Cold temperatures can also worsen nerve conditions. Prolonged exposure to the cold causes the body to slow blood circulation to the hands and feet in an effort to preserve the body’s core temperature which can then intensify symptoms of neuropathy.
Cold and the Brain
There is no doubt that our mood is often affected by the weather. When fall and winter arrive, many people feel depressed. For almost one in five Americans, this can become a major medical problem known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Although the exact causes of SAD remain unclear, it is probably a mixture of longer nights, environmental changes and heredity. Even if you don’t suffer from SAD, pain conditions are often exacerbated in the winter. Depression by itself is a painful condition that may present with physical aches, but when it manifests in a chronic pain patient, it can significantly aggravate symptoms.
Depression and pain are similar biochemical processes that involve many of the same neurotransmitters, so if both conditions are present they can reinforce one another.
It is impossible to prevent winter, but here are some steps you can take to minimize its impact on your health.
- Remain hydrated— the denser air that accompanies colder temperatures can aggravate many joint conditions including arthritis. You can diminish this effect by using a humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids. With so much watery precipitation around, it is easy to forget that you need to maintain your internal fluid levels as well. We tend to lose moisture to the dry air, so we need to drink more water. (Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks since they dehydrate drinkers).
- Take warm baths—it can be difficult to fully warm all of our body in colder weather. That is why immersion in a warm bath is ideal for chronic pain sufferers. Not only does it warm the entire body, but it also loosens tight muscles and relieves aches. Baths and exercise are my go to for pain relief. Nothing soothes my aching muscles better than a long soak while soothing my soul and calming my mind.
- Workout—if you have a stationary bike or weights at home, the perfect time to use them is in the winter. If you don’t, a few stretches and core-strengthening exercises may be sufficient to burn some calories and keep your blood circulating. The key is to avoid inactivity by stretching and mobilizing throughout the day. Even if it’s just walking in place, bending and twisting or standing instead of sitting several times a day.
- Keep warm at night—sleep is a priority, so use an electric blanket (my favorite) or heated mattress cover so that your sleep isn’t disrupted. A heavy down comforter is another excellent way to lock in heat and help keep your body warm throughout the night. To decrease the unnecessary cost to warm other rooms I also use my daughters old baby heater in front of my bed. That way I can safely warm the air surrounding my sleeping area while preventing accidents that can cause a fire or harm my dogs when they get curious. Here is one option if you’re interested in purchasing a baby heater for your home.
- Dress Cozy – one of the best ways to retain heat is to keep cozy with appropriate clothes. Wearing loose-fitting but heavy, heat-trapping garments can act as a personal temperature regulator. Wool clothing such as long underwear, T-shirts, pajamas, and bed linens can, in some cases be as effective as prescription medications for reducing pain. Wearing multiple layers such as scarves, beanies, sweaters, gloves, and socks allows you to change your immediate temperature without having to use the thermostat or sit under a mountain of blankets.
- Get Equipped- in addition to wearing warm clothing, there are other products that can help keep your body warm at any time. Single-use hand and feet warmers can be bought in bulk and easily slipped into your shoes or gloves. Alternatively, heating pads, hot packs and microwaveable warmers can be used multiple times and provide relief to more specific locations such as the back, hip, neck and various joints.
- Skip the Nightcaps- even though certain alcoholic beverages may seem like they provide a toasty warming sensation, they can actually lower body heat. Drinking alcohol can cause blood vessels to dilate, resulting in heat loss! Instead of looking to a boozy beverage for warmth, try sipping on some herbal tea or hot soup or chocolate to heat up the insides while relaxing the body and mind.
By understanding the effect cold weather has on chronic conditions and their associated symptoms, you can prepare for the winter chill. Incorporating low-intensity physical activity, dressing appropriately, eating healthy, exercising and utilizing all the heating options available, you can warm up and avoid increased chronic pain when the temperature drops.
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