If your back starts aching every time there’s a drop in temperature, you’re not alone. Many people are convinced they can “feel” a storm coming on by the pain in their lower back, but studies have shown there is only a weak association between chronic pain symptoms and inclement weather.
Last year, researchers in Australia decided to test the idea that weather triggers back pain. They examined 993 individuals who visited their doctor for low back pain and matched those visits to national meteorological data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. They checked temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind direction, and precipitation at the time the patients initially reported their back pain and compared them to the weather parameters one week and one month before.
At the end of the year-long study, researchers concluded that there is no association of weather conditions with episodes of back pain. The only factors that appeared to cause a slight increase in the risk of back pain were higher wind speed and wind gusts, but the results weren’t clinically significant.
So why do so many people complain of pain on rainy days or even claim they can “feel” it in their bones when a storm is coming?
One popular hypothesis states that the drop in barometric pressure, which often happens before bad weather sets in, could cause tissues that are already inflamed to swell even further. Proponents of this idea suggest that lower air pressure pushes less against the body from the outside and allows the tissues to expand, which in turn put more pressure on the joint. This is more likely to happen if nerves are already sensitized due to injury, scarring, or adhesions.
An alternative theory with more supporting evidence is that cooler weather triggers certain changes in the body, such as constriction of blood vessels in the limbs, in order to minimize heat loss and maintain the body’s core temperature. These changes lead to a decrease in the amount of oxygen available to the muscles, making contraction more difficult and amplifying pain signals when the weather is frightful.
Nevertheless, the association between chronic pain and weather changes remains theoretical, as scientists have yet to find a scientific way to detect and medically chart weather-related increases in back pain. Further investigation is also needed to determine the influence of weather parameters on symptoms associated with specific diseases such as arthritis, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Coping with Your Back Pain in Cold Weather
Whether the back pain-weather connection is scientifically proven or not, you can still find relief any time your back pain acts up during cooler weather.
Stay warm. If the cold air appears to increase your discomfort level, keep yourself warm by dressing in layers and make sure your lower back area is protected from cold drafts by applying a therapeutic heat pad. At night, try sleeping under an electric blanket or warm up your clothes in the dryer before wearing them. Also, make sure your residence is warm and comfortable at all times.
Keep yourself hydrated. Even if you may not feel as thirsty during cold weather as in summer, your fluid loss is significantly higher than in warmer months. Sweat evaporates quicker, while urine production is increased during cold weather. Drinking plenty of water will help reduce the risk of dehydration during the cold months, in turn making it easier for your muscles to contract properly and avoid cramping or stiffness.
Have a massage. There’s nothing better than a relaxing, soothing massage to improve your blood circulation and keep your muscles oxygenated during a cold spell. Massage therapy has a deep penetrating effect that lowers muscle stress and increases blood circulation to muscles, joints, tendons, and organs, leaving you feeling refreshed and ready for action. Getting regular massages from a licensed therapist can also improve your mood and boost your energy levels so that you can finally snap from your winter blues.
Keep moving. Lower temperatures can significantly reduce muscles’ ability to contract. Performing physical activities with cold muscles, whether it’s doing chores around the house or jogging in the park, can lead to pain and injury. Make sure to warm up your muscles before going about your day, even if the ambient temperature is not that cold. Stretching correctly will increase the amount of oxygen to your muscles and prevent serious injury.
If your back, neck, shoulder, hip, or other joints warn you of wretched weather ahead, implement these ideas to get you through the cold spell and minimize discomfort. However, if your symptoms persist and painkillers provide no relief, your local massage therapist can help relieve aches and stiffness that cold weather causes in muscles and joints. Keep yourself healthy and active this winter by enjoying the many benefits of therapeutic massage and other natural therapies offered at your local chiropractic clinic.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.