Does The Winter Weather Increase Pain Levels?
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Winter can be a drag, lack of sunlight, cold, wet, snow, colds and flu, it can really pull us down. I often have patients coming to me here in Cardiff this time of year because they are having a flare-up due to the winter weather. Many people complain of knee, back and hip pain predominantly in the colder months.
But is this true?, can the cold weather really make a difference to pain levels and even increase pain during the winter months?
Well, there is conflicting evidence. One study shows that pain levels are actually higher in warmer countries like Spain, Mexico, and America and overall pain levels in the colder country populations such as Norway, Finland, Poland, and the UK are lower. Our body is temperature-controlled by the brain, our core temperature fluctuates very little as we need a steady core temperature for survival and for our cells to thrive. When we are exposed to extreme cold, blood flow is moved to the areas of the body that needs the most protection. This is mainly our organs but also the muscles too. Our knee joints, for example, are very well insulated whereas the fingers, toes and nose is susceptible to frostbite and freezing damage. The evidence shows that we would need extreme temperatures for a very long exposure to make existing pain worse.
So what could be going on?
Inactivity is one reason people may feel more pain in winter: With the increased rate of rain, storms, high winds and sometimes snow here in Cardiff, people are less like to go out. People can become more sedentary reducing their activity levels compared to the summer months. Lack of mobility increases stiffness in the joints and muscles which in turn increases pain levels. Keeping active is one of the best things someone can do if they are suffering from musculoskeletal pain.
SAD (seasonal affect disorder). Also known as the winter blues. Depression and mood disorders are well known to increase pain levels, especially non-specific lower back pain. The lack of sunlight and vitamin D can affect people's moods in the wintertime. This can also lead people to become more sedentary further increasing pain levels. Lack of vitamin D has shown links to low mood, low energy and a whole host of other issues. Statistics show that 1 in 5 people are deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D3 is the most important D vitamin as we only get it from sunlight. Exercising, pushing yourself to be more social and eating healthy can put a halt to SAD.
What is going to help reduce pain in winter?
Movement: They key is to keep moving. That means in all weather and preparing so you can go out in the cold and rain and get some valuable fresh air and exercise. Of course, you could always go to the gym and have the comfort of being inside. If you want to be outside in the bad weather then invest in proper clothing, if we are well protected the weather is generally not an issue.
Swimming: Swimming is a perfect non-load-bearing exercise that has shown to reduce arthritic pain. It’s also refreshing and revitalizing.
Dance: Listen to some music and have a little boogie. Not only will it give much-needed movement it will also give a mental boost of the happy chemicals reducing low mood.
Join a class: Take up yoga or Pilates, these styles of exercise are dynamic and work on the mind as well as the body. Many people take up yoga to reduce anxiety and depression. It will also give the chance of meeting new people and friends, again lifting mood.
Use the stairs: Using our legs more gets the heart rate up increasing fitness levels. Many people opt for a lift before they do a set of stairs. See those steps as a quick opportunity to get some extra movement.
Eat well: What we put in we get out. If you are eating too much-processed food and sugar then inflammation in the body will increase. Eating poorly will also affect mood. Research shows a good diet can reduce low mood and increase general health. The more healthy we feel the more likely we will want to exercise.
Get some Vitamin D: It is always best to get a blood test before taking any supplement. If you are low then the GP can prescribe the right dose. Vit D may help with both mood and pain levels in the winter.
In summary: The cold cannot really cause an increase in pain levels itself, but it is how we react to cold weather that can increase pain.