Our last blog explored some possible theories as to why those suffering from chronic pain conditions typically feel their pain increase in the cold winter months. We discussed the fact that although there is very little empirical evidence showing a link between the weather and increased pain, the vast majority of our clients do indeed experience more pain through the winter. Regardless of the mechanisms at work here, we know that our pain management skills must be effectively utilized during this time of the year. The following will discuss ways in which we can keep pain levels at bay while maintaining a positive approach to the winter months.
We know that keeping active and exercising on a regular basis is a crucial part of pain management. Exercise becomes even more important in the winter months, as cold weather can lead to increased stiffness in the muscles and an even more sensitive nervous system. To avoid large flare-ups in pain, try to complete activities that are of lower impact such as walking, Yoga, Tai Chi, or using an elliptical trainer. Light swimming or exercises completed in a heated pool can sooth muscle tension as well. If you are able to, try to complete exercises that mimic our fundamental movements: things like squats (seated to standing), lunges (bending down to pick up things), and climbing stairs. Keep the upper extremities loose with some arm circles, raises, and other range of motion activities. This will ensure you remain limber and prepared to tackle your day-to-day routine.
Boost the Immune System
Research shows that the cold and damp weather can have a negative impact on our immune system. Consequently, when we are feeling ill or fighting a virus, our body is much more susceptible to increased pain. In order to keep our health in check, it’s important that we continue to eat healthy through the holidays and winter months. Make sure to include the right amounts of lean proteins and complex carbohydrates to fuel the body and mind. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will nourish the body and provide extra energy as well. Don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and try to limit your sugar and alcohol intake. Focusing on eating healthy year round not only strengthens your immune system, it will also help control your inflammatory response. This in turn will help to decrease stiffness in the muscles and will help you recover from pain flare-ups more quickly.
Another good way to keep our pain levels at bay is to try and maintain a constant body temperature. In an attempt to maintain a regular core temperature, there are numerous physiological changes that occur in the body. One change that has a major impact on chronic pain sufferers is activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The act of shivering is one example of how the nervous system helps us keep warm. The rapid and
rhythmic muscle contractions brought on by the shivers produces heat for the rest of the body. Unfortunately for those already suffering from chronic pain, these contractions can become especially intense and quite uncomfortable. By keeping warm we can avoid these painful muscle contractions that cause our pain levels to flare out of control. Naturally, wearing appropriate clothing is our first defence in battling the cold. Wear loose fitting but heavy garments to trap in body heat. Wearing multiple layers along with wool socks, thick gloves, and knitted hats is also beneficial while outdoors. In addition to wearing warm clothing, try and equip your house to endure the frigid winter temperatures. Keep your home degree or two warmer if able. Have some heavy blankets on stand by and definitely make sure your comforter is up to the challenge of holding in warmth overnight. Heating pads and microwavable warmers can also be beneficial for relieving painful areas in the body brought on by the cold.
When the cold weather hits, many of us tend to “hibernate” indoors. We don’t get out and about as much as we should and there may be a drop in the amount of social interaction we get. Staying connected to family and friends during this time can do a lot of good in staving off the winter blues. Take the time to get together with others; go for a cup of coffee, do some window shopping at a local mall, or better yet, consider forming an exercise group to keep you motivated and active as well. Also, try and share a few laughs during social gatherings. Studies have shown that laughter reduces stress, burns calories, activates the immune system, and reduces pain. Don’t forget that old adage saying that “laughter is the best medicine”…it really does ring true in a lot of ways.
Get Your Sleep (and Seek Light)
A lot of people, not just those dealing with chronic pain, find that they feel much more tired during the winter months. We all know how warm and cozy bed feels on those chilly winter mornings and it can be very tempting to sleep in or take naps throughout the day. Trying to “catch up on sleep” can actually be counterproductive and lead to more fatigue. Instead, experts recommend we try and maintain proper sleep hygiene with set times for going to bed and waking up in the morning. This will help us get that all important 6-8 hours of shut eye our bodies need to recover and recharge. Another factor that adds to winter tiredness is the lack of daylight we experience this time of year. Lack of light exposure increases the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone related to our sleep/wake cycle. Elevated levels of melatonin can lead to fatigue and even contributes to depression in some people. To counteract this, seek as much sunlight as you can throughout the day. Start your day by opening your blinds and curtains to let in the morning sun. Try to sneak in as much time outdoors as you can and try to incorporate some physical activity to boost your mood and energy levels. Another nutrient that we tend to lack with reduced light exposure is Vitamin D. Many chronic pain sufferers will take Vitamin D supplements to combat this deficiency. Along with the increased moods and energy levels that Vitamin D can provide, a nice bonus lies in the fact that proper levels of this nutrient help to reduce pain and stiffness in the muscles. Don’t forget that Vitamin D is prevalent in dietary sources such as oily fish like salmon and eggs too.