As the cold weather sets in each year, a familiar pattern emerges for many chronic pain sufferers, their symptoms become exacerbated during the winter months. Where their pain may be reasonably managed for the rest of the year, winter brings an amplification of hurt and stiffness that drains coping reserves. From widespread muscle tightness and aches to aggravated joints that refuse to move freely, the low temperatures and shorter daysof the season seem to have a direct intensifying effect on chronic pain. Flare-ups increase and pain levels often double or triple what is typical for these patients.
There are a few key reasons why chronic pain gets worse in the winter:
Lower Temperatures Constrict Blood Vessels
As external temperatures drop, the body works over time to maintain its core internal temperature. This causes blood vessels to constrict to prevent heat loss, reducing blood circulation overall. With less blood circulating, oxygen and nutrients aren’t adequately transported to muscles and joints which need them to function properly. This can lead to inflammation and stiffness.
Shorter Days Disrupt Sleep Patterns
The shorter daylight hours of winter can disrupt healthy sleep cycles. Many chronic pain patients already deal with regular insomnia and fatigue. The longer nights compound these issues, resulting in less restorative rest. Inadequate sleep then lowers pain thresholds and resilience.
Cold, Wet Weather Aggravates Arthritis
For those with arthritic conditions like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, the cold, damp weather of winter can irritate joints and trigger immune responses. This leads to flare-ups causing swollen, tender joints and stabbing pains. Those with injuries to bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons may also find scar tissue and old wounds more bothersome.
Inactivity Worsens Muscle Stiffness
The icy conditions make outdoor activities more difficult in winter. Being less active indoors can cause muscles to tighten up and lose strength. Weak, stiff muscles then provide less support to surrounding joints, increasing strain and pain. The colder weather can also be demotivating, making it harder to convince one’s self to exercise.
Mood Declines Due to Shorter Days
The seasonal affective disorder caused by shorter winter days is no joke, even for those not formally diagnosed with depression. Vitamin D absorption decreases leading to low moods, fatigue and feeling ‘wintery’. These then lower motivation levels to carry out pain and symptom management strategies.
Quick At-Home Remedies for Winter Pain Relief
While simply waiting out the winter is an option, the following at-home measures can provide quicker relief for amplifying chronic pain:
Stay Active with Moderate Exercise
Gentle range of motion exercises, stretches and controlled strength training help mitigate stiffer muscles and joints. The key is tailoring the activity to one’s condition to avoid flaring up inflammation. This may mean shorter sessions or lower intensity. Even light walking or lifting small weights makes a difference.
Up Intake of Anti-inflammatory Foods
Certain foods boasting anti-inflammatory compounds can relieve pain. Brightly coloured citrus fruits contain Vitamin C and antioxidants for fighting inflammation. Leafy greens like kale and spinach provide Vitamin K to improve bone and joint health. Plant-based omega-3s from walnuts and soybeans also lightly reduce inflammatory response.
Apply Warm Compresses to Painful Areas
Simple heat application boosts blood flow to afflicted joints or muscles. The increased circulation transports more oxygen and nutrients crucial for cell repair and function. Use microwavable heat packs, hot water pads or warm damp towels and apply for quick relief lasting hours. Re-heat and reapply 2-3 times daily as needed.
Stay Properly Hydrated and Warmed
Dehydration causes muscles to stiffen and spasm leading to pain all over. The winter air’s low humidity quickens water loss through breathing. Be sure to consume sufficient fluids daily. Dressing warmly in breathable layers ensures muscles stay loose by maintaining warmth. Thermal leggings and shirts also help.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
Stress and anxiety amplify the perception of pain by keeping muscles in a contracted state. Actively relaxing the body through light meditation or yoga cools down this tension. Deep breathing with mental imagery, repeating calming mantras or trying progressive muscle relaxation induces the ‘rest and digest’ response for pain relief.
Consider Professional Treatments
For moderate to severe chronic pain, professional therapies deliver concentrated benefits. Physiotherapy uses targeted exercises, hands-on joint mobilisation and therapeutic modalities to open up stiffened areas. Seeing a pain specialist can provide stabilising medication, steroid joint injections or nerve blockades when home remedies aren’t enough.
(The author, Dr. Swagatesh Bhatia, is the co-founder of Alleviate Pain Clinic.)