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  • Brad Wolfe, B.A., Registered Kinesiologist

Managing Pain in the Winter Months: Part 1

Individuals dealing with chronic pain conditions often find that the weather has an impact on their overall pain levels. This is especially true in the winter months, when many of our clients report increases in their pain as the cold weather sets in. There are a number of theories that attempt to explain this phenomenon, but surprisingly there is very little empirical data backing our client’s claims. Despite this, chronic pain sufferers know for a fact that there is a cause and effect relationship between cold weather and their pain. This blog will explore a few theories as to why changes in the weather and frigid temperatures impact our pain levels.

Why do I hurt more when it’s cold?

To this day, there is very little evidence that can definitively pinpoint a relationship between the weather and our pain levels. A number of studies have been done and many show no or very little correlation between weather changes and chronic pain. Our client’s experiences, however, tell a much different story. As the winter months arrive and the cold weather sets in, the vast majority of our clients report increased pain and distress. Although the studies conducted on weather and pain can’t provide reasoning behind this phenomenon, there are a few theories out there.

As we know, chronic pain is directly related to an oversensitive nervous system. For some individuals, their condition is so delicate that even small fluctuations in temperature will result in discomfort. More notable drops in temperature can also cause widespread pain in some individuals due to increased nerve receptivity. In other words, the cold weather can make our sensitized nervous system even more sensitive than it already is. Therefore, those movements and activities that we are typically able to endure will cause more pain than normally experienced. Along with this, cold temperatures have been shown to negatively influence nerve conduction in the body. This means that any pre-existing nerve damage one may have could temporarily worsen, leading to reductions in overall functioning and resulting pain.

Some experts believe that barometric pressure may also be a possible cause to increased pain. This theory proposes that decreased barometric pressure (also known as air or atmospheric pressure) leads to increased pressure on the joints. This may be because there is less atmospheric pressure holding our tissues back, causing them to swell more than usual. This swelling irritates the joints themselves, as well as the surrounding nerves, and can lead to increased pain. Another joint related theory is that cold weather increases the thickness of the fluid within the joints themselves. This increase in viscosity causes the synovial fluid to lose some of its lubricating properties that allows us to move free and easy. A thicker fluid means more pressure within the joint, typically leading to more pain.

Conversely, some believe that colder weather can actually shrink bodily tissues. When this happens, the over-tightened tissues pull on surrounding nerves causing more pain. Another thing that can occur with tight muscles is spasms. As our muscles tighten,

spasms occur naturally to combat inactivity. This uncontrollable cramping can definitely lead to major discomfort and pain in some individuals.

Finally, there may also be a psychological aspect to this weather/pain connection. As we have discussed in previous blogs, heightened psychological distress has a great impact on the amount of pain one feels. It is very common to see people’s moods dip somewhat during the winter, so naturally this will have some impact on our pain levels too.

What we do know…

One thing we do know is that the colder weather typically affects our overall activity levels. Inclement weather tends to keep us indoors and prevents many people from being as active as they need. As we know, regular physical activity is a crucial tool in pain management; staying active keeps our joints lubricated and the muscles loose. The release of endorphins during exercise helps to combat pain and also helps to improve our moods and distress. A lack of physical activity, coupled with the tendency to consume calorie rich foods during the winter, can also lead to weight gain and an increased stress on our joints. We lose protein and calcium stores with inactivity too; all the more reason to keep moving through this cold time of the year.

Our next blog will discuss different ways to maintain activity levels over the winter months. We will also review ways to stave off the “winter blues” and will cover some useful tips in keeping our overall pain levels at bay.

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