Winter can be an uncomfortable season for anyone—bundling up to go outside, shuffling to prevent slips and falls, and constantly trying to ward off seasonal discomforts like the flu and dry skin. But for patients with chronic pain, it has a reputation for being downright debilitating.
“There has yet to be a scientific link between cold weather and increased chronic pain, but most people who suffer from it will tell you that their symptoms worsen in extreme weather situations and that weather is a major contributor to their pain,” says Bill Burkett, clinical supervisor of Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital’s RehabWorks program.
Although it may be difficult to prevent all chronic pain flare-ups this winter, Burkett recommends some at-home remedies to make this season more comfortable.
Take a dip – Studies have shown that warm water can have a soothing effect on chronic pain. At the end of the day, take a warm bath or shower or take a dip in a heated pool to help shake off the chill of a cold day.
Dress in layers – Nobody likes having to bundle up to go outside during the winter, but being warm outdoors is important to reducing chronic pain. Make sure you’re layered in long sleeve T-shirts, long underwear, gloves, scarves, hats, and warm boots to keep your body warm.
“Pre-heat” whenever possible – Alternating between cold temperatures and warm can provide a shock to anyone’s joints, but can especially affect those with chronic pain. Whenever possible, try to ‘pre-heat’ your surroundings by warming your clothing in the dryer before wearing it, using a towel warmer before you get out of the bath or shower, an electric blanket before going to bed, or pre-warming your car before getting in.
Exercise – As with many health conditions, exercise can help improve chronic pain. Unfortunately, the last thing you want to do when you’re in pain is exercise.
“If you’re suffering from chronic pain during the winter, or at any point, gentle yoga, stretching, walking, or water aerobics are all fitness options that don’t need to be very physically taxing, but that can help reduce your symptoms,” says Burkett.
Practice healthy habits – Like many other health conditions, chronic pain's symptoms can be minimized by practicing healthy habits. This is especially important during particularly cold months, when flare-ups are more likely.
“Self-care is very important for those with chronic pain. A healthy diet, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and stress reduction and management can go a long way in helping control chronic pain symptoms at any time of year,” explains Burkett.
Look for mood-boosters – Although winter is notorious for being the season for feeling down in the dumps--think seasonal affective disorder--keeping your spirits high can have a positive effect on your pain. Improving your mood can affect your brain's ability to modulate pain, so look for ways to keep yourself smiling. Do something enjoyable every day--whether it's setting aside time to relax, getting together with friends, or tuning out and reading a book or watching a movie.
If you’re still suffering from debilitating chronic pain even after lifestyle modifications, talk to your physician about other options. Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital’s pain management services include a range of therapeutic techniques to offer relief from chronic pain.