Temperature is a constant feature of our environment, so it is important to have a good understanding of how it may affect any chronic pain conditions. Now that winter is approaching, it is smart to take any necessary precautions to prevent additional damage to your body that could slow the healing process or exacerbate any pain symptoms. Cold weather and pain, unfortunately, tend to go hand in hand, but there are steps you can take to minimize how cold weather affects you.
It may surprise you to learn that the amount of research regarding cold weather and pain is rather limited. Although modern medicine has spent considerable effort studying pain conditions, relatively little has been devoted to understanding how cold temperatures affect pain. In fact, much of the best advice that you or your doctor rely on may be anecdotal.
How Temperature Affects the Human Body
You have probably known since you were a child that your body’s natural temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the optimal environmental temperature is in the 70s. Anything too different from this can make us very uncomfortable us, interfere with our bodily functions or kill us.
Cold can have dramatic effects on us. In colder weather, our bodies adjust their metabolism to compensate for lower temperatures. You are likely to lose weight or have an increased appetite because your body is burning more calories to maintain your internal temperature. During colder months, it is healthier to increase your caloric intake—just do so judiciously.
On the other hand, you should be burning at least some of those excess calories off through physical exertion. It is only natural to want to stay inside if the temperature falls and conditions outside are less welcoming, but you shouldn’t slack off on your regular fitness routine. Cold weather will stiffen muscles, tendons and ligaments, so it important to stretch and exercise during the colder months to prevent painful stiffness.
Cold weather and inactivity can combine to increase pain symptoms. Tense muscles can augment pain conditions like fibromyalgia, while excessive cold can make joint conditions like osteoarthritis worsen. Cold temperatures may also negatively impact nerve conditions, making pain symptoms more prominent.
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 emotional 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, you may still find that pain conditions are more poignant 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 greatly aggravate pain 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.
In addition to the many physical and mental changes that follow the cold, there are also many external hazards that may intensify and pain conditions. You should take preventive steps to limit any winter risks, or, at least be mindful of them as you go about your day.
- Hypothermia—it may seem obvious, but many people fail to keep warm enough when the temperature drops. You may think you know when you are getting too cold, but frostbite can creep up on you. When you go outside, cover as much up as possible.
- Icy conditions—ice is a major hazard for anyone, but a slip and fall can set you back in your road to recovery. In 2014, more than 42,000 Americans experienced a fall on the job due to icy conditions, most of them occurring on level ground.
- Vehicle collision—poor driving conditions contribute to many fatalities and injuries every winter. More than 900 people are killed and 76,000 people injured every year due to snow or sleet. Avoid driving in poor conditions if possible and maintain your auto to minimize these risks.
- Higher barometric pressure—the denser air that accompanies colder temperatures can aggravate many joint conditions including arthritis. You can mitigate this by using a humidifier and drinking plenty of fluids.
- Cold and flu—chronic pain symptoms are likely to worsen if you contract influenza or the cold. To avoid this complication, get your annual flu shot and take precautions like eating healthy, rest well, and wash your hands often.
Beating Cold Weather and Pain
It is impossible to prevent winter, but there are some steps you can take to minimize its impact on your health.
- Travel to a warmer climate—if you have the resources, you can avoid winter altogether by traveling to a place that doesn’t experience it. If you do plan to travel, make sure you do so early enough to miss any wintry conditions while in route.
- Remain hydrated—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 bodies 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.
- Workout—if you have a stationary bike or weights at home, the perfect time to use it is in the winter. Even 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.
- Keep warm at night—use an electric blanket or heated mattress cover so that your sleep isn’t disrupted at night. Sleep should be a priority if you are struggling with a pain condition.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees. The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship. Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.