Many people who suffer from pain feel worse when it is cold outside. Those who have joint problems like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, nerve damage and muscle disease have more pain when the temperature drops. If we have been told to use ice to prevent injuries from hurting, many ask why they feel worse when cold weather settles in. The reason for feeling pain is the same reason we actually use ice packs to prevent pain. Cold can slow the transmission of the nerves. Placing ice on an injury keeps inflammation down and reduces the ability to transmit pain signals.
Chronic conditions that cause pain often become worse with the cold. When the body is cold, muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints do not move as well as when they are warm. Joints become stiff from the joint fluid not flowing as smoothly.
In the cold, muscles, ligaments and tendons are also stiff. The body is not much different than many other materials when exposed to cold. Materials like plastic become brittle when exposed to cold and become more pliable when warm. The body is not much different. When cold, many structures become stiff and do not move as well. As the structures in the body are warmed up, they move better and smoother. If a structure is not moving well, it is likely we feel it and sense the abnormality of movement. Most people feel the change in sensation of movement as discomfort, stiffness, aches or pain.
Cold can also stimulate nerves. Some pain fibers respond specifically to the cold and send signals of pain when they sense it. Furthermore, a large portion of the nervous system functions to inhibit abnormal signals. Cold slows nerve transmission in general and thus slows the body’s ability to inhibit signals. The body’s ability to control pain signals are also impaired and slowed by cold.
Winter is here, and the weather is unlikely to get much better for several months. When it is cold outside, it is important to keep your body warm to reduce pain. Warmth allows the body to function more normally. Normal body temperature allows the fabric of the body to move smoothly. Keeping the body close to normal temperature allows its structure to function the best with the least amount of pain.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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