As a child you may have developed fond memories associated with winter. Holiday break, seasonal sports, jinglebell rock, and the silence that falls over your neighborhood when the first snowfall of the season blankets your cul-de-sac in an abundance of thick white drifts.
You may also remember hearing your father or grandfather complain about the cold, holding their back, or fetching hot compresses from the cabinet to ease their stiff joints.
It has been a long-debated question; does cold weather exacerbate back pain? Undeniably anecdotal evidence points to the answer being YES, but surprisingly scientists are still debating the exact reason why.
In this post we’ll examine the reasons that the cold weather may make back pain worse according to the published literature.
DOES COLD WEATHER CAUSE BACK PAIN?
The main function of the human body that scientists point their finger at as the cause of most seasonal pain is called vasorestriction. It’s a completely normal response to cold weather, and everyone experiences it.
You may have noticed that after playing outside in the snow, your hands and feet will feel numb to most sensations. Or if you try to message someone back on your phone while the windchill around you is in the 20’s you may have trouble coordinating your fingers.
That is because when your body senses the cold, it dilates your blood vessels to divert blood away from your extremities to the brain, lungs, heart, and bowels to keep essential functions moving along as intended.
The unintended consequence of this very natural response is that people who suffer from chronic pain, such as arthritis, discogenic pain from herniations, facet joint pain from swelling, or any other kind of structural pain related to the spine or joints will suffer more due to the restriction of those blood vessels.
The tightness will tug on the tendons and ligaments that support your spine, and the decreased blood flow may result in soreness, stiffness, and numbness near injuries or sites of chronic inflammation.
BAROMETRIC PRESSURE MAY CAUSE INFLAMMATION AND SWELLING
While there is no scientific literature to back up this hypothesis, it is one of the prevailing theories among sufferers of chronic pain.
In addition to cold weather and snowy days, many people report increased pain in their joints or spine precluding the arrival of a storm system, such as a hurricane. This has led to the speculation that barometric pressure may increase swelling and inflammation by reducing the amount of force applied to the injured tissue, thus resulting in a more acute inflammatory response.
This increased inflammation, as the theory goes, will register as more severe nerve pain or stiffness in the spine near the site of injury. Though we won’t know if this theory holds water until scientists put it to the test.
SEASONAL DEPRESSION AND BACK PAIN
Perhaps not the first reason you might correlate with physical injury, but it is hypothesized and heavily correlated by mental health professionals that depression can exacerbate the symptoms of chronic pain.
Many Americans in the northeast suffer from seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. This condition results from winter-time feelings of isolation and lonliness from lack of exercise, sunlight, social interaction, and shorter darker days which may make our time feel more limited.
There are a lot of complex reasons why people are affected by SAD, though from the perspective of chronic pain, the kind of stress put on the brain from SAD can decrease pain tolerance, increase your irritability, make you feel constantly fatigued, and increase swelling in your joints by ramping up production of inflammatory cytokines in your blood.
All together, winter brings with it a whole host of problems for sufferers of back pain. But there are things you can do to abate it.
Keep hot compresses or personal heaters handy. Just because the weather outside is frightful doesn’t mean you can’t keep your own space warm and toasty. With many people working from home now, a personal heater is an even better investment for those with a separate home office space. It will save you money versus heating through central air, and is highly adjustable to your preference.
Make sure to stretch frequently. Stand up from your office chair and walk around your house, keep blood flowing to your extremities to avoid stiffness and numbness.
Fill your days with enjoyable activities and find a reason to enjoy the winter. For a lot of people in the northeast, winter means isolation from their family, co-workers, and friends. If you don’t have a good support system, try joining an online community or picking up a new hobby. The list devised to stave off seasonal depression is a long one, and if you feel helpless in the matter, consult with a behavioral health specialist.
Seek out early treatment. If you’re a chronic sufferer or if your injury was more recent, consult with a professional and examine your treatment options before the weather robs you of your ability to travel. If you are in need of an initial examination, Deuk Spine Institute provides free spine health consultations and MRI reviews via our website at mri.deukspine.com, funded by the Deuk Spine Foundation for Education & Research.