Colder Weather Increases Pain Symptoms

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By Dr. Sender Deutsch
Published on November 14, 2014

Pain caused by cold weather

Weather changes can sometimes be the culprit of our pain. In our practice, we find that many patients will complain of increased pain during times of weather changes, as there is a direct affect on the barometric pressure (atmospheric pressure). Research has shown that changes in temperature and barometric pressures can increase stiffness in joints, sensitize nerve endings and can influence mood changes in some people, indirectly increasing pain perception (verges et all, 2004).  That could be why chronic pain sufferers often feel much worse with damper, colder weather as the season changes into fall and winter.

It is normal to feel this increase in pain sensitivity, as our bodies are adapting to stay warm and cope with the decrease in barometric pressure causing our joints and areas that are injured to swell. This causes inflammation resulting in pain. Chronic migraine, back pain and arthritic patients prefer the heat as the warmer, dryer weather promotes blood flow, increased circulation and barometric pressure on our bodies preventing swelling, which helps reduce pain. High pressure tends to help and low pressure tends to hinder our bodies causing more pain.

Arthritis, chronic inflammation of a joint, is often accompanied by structural changes. These changes decrease the amount of space we have between our joints, thus; when there is an increase in pressure from the weather, bones begin to rub on each other causing cartilage tissue irritation, an inflammatory reaction and nerve pain. Chronic pain sufferers already have what is termed “central sensitization” or a heightened sensitivity to pain, therefore even slight changes in environmental pressure, can cause significantly more pain.  Cold weather causes stiffness, muscle tightness and our joints to become more irritated. Postural positions will change to rounding and lifting of the shoulders, and lowering of the head, in order to try to conserve heat. This indirectly causes rounding of the spine, neck tension and neural tension, which will promote pain.

Slow changes in weather patterns make it easier for our bodies to adapt. The extreme changes in Toronto’s weather this past year has caused chronic pain and migraine sufferers to have an overload of sensory nerve impulses into their brain, causing headaches and more pain in our joints. Our goal as therapists is to decrease the neural and tissue tension on the body in order to help control the pain. However; not every patient is going to be the same. One thing we know for sure is that pain is perceived by the brain. Sometimes, our nerve firing patterns can be disturbed and signals amplified causing migraines, headaches and joint pain.

Ways to Combat Pain Associated With Weather and Barometric Pressure Changes:

  1. Dress warm and use dry fit clothing as base layers to keep the body warm just as athletes do to enhance performance
  2. Use heat to promote the feeling of warmth
  3. Wear compression clothing such as compression socks or neoprene sleeve around a sensitive joint to help reduce expansion of soft tissues and joints
  4. Meditation and breathing exercises to increase tissue perfusion and reduce stress
  5. Exercise therapy that is pain free to increase motion and synovial fluid to help lubricate the joints
  6. Hot water pool therapy again to increase blood flow and circulation and unload the joints
  7. Yoga and or stretching session to increase pliability of tissues and reduce soft tissue compression
  8. Physical therapy techniques to reduce swelling (e.g. acupuncture, electrical muscle stimulation, TENS, etc.)
  9. Manual therapy to alter sensory input
  10. Massage therapy to decrease inflammation, increase lymphatic drainage and promote circulation