Do changes in temperature and weather patterns really impact your joint and muscle health? Many people complain of increased pain during the winter months, but there is little evidence to support these claims. Despite the lack of research backing these beliefs, here are a couple of factors that may be complicating your enjoyment of the great winter wonderland (or frozen wasteland depending on your outlook).
Cold is often used to treat injuries, so how can it be an instigator of back pain?
• We know cold temperatures decrease inflammation, but sometimes inflammation or blood perfusion is needed for proper muscle and tissue function.
• Muscles may tighten up and cause decreased flexibility in colder temperatures. This could lead to a higher risk of injury.
• It is also thought that colder temperatures change the thickness of joint fluid, which alters the viscosity inside the joint.
Snow removal is a big part of life on the frozen tundra, and if you shovel the driveway by hand you may be at an increased risk of injury. The cold weather also makes it harder to muster the energy to hit the gym.
• One of the most common causes of injury to the lower back is flexion and rotation under load. This is the same mechanism most use for throwing a shovel full of snow off the driveway.
• A clear indicator for increased pain is a sedentary lifestyle. I have written about this in the past, but exercise and activity are some of the best methods to prevent and manage musculoskeletal complaints.
• With shorter days and colder temperatures, we spend less time outside, which may lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This and other depressive disorders increase sensitivity to pain.
• Icy conditions also make transportation more difficult. Whether you commute to work or walk down the steps at the office, ice increases the risk of car accidents and slip-and-fall injuries.
Tips to help
• Take breaks while shoveling or clearing sidewalks and driveways. The load capacity of your joints for this activity is low, especially early in the season.
• Limit how much “throwing” of snow you do; try to push snow to the end or side of the driveway instead of tossing it.
• Walk like a penguin. This means taking small, shorter steps when we have icy conditions and keep the center of gravity over the top of your feet.
• Keep your hands free when walking. You have a better chance of catching yourself before you fall, and having your hands and arms free can help stabilize yourself as you walk.
• Try to get some activity in! There are plenty of outdoor activities that can be done to qualify as exercise, but if the cold has got you down try to get to the gym or do some activities at home to get the blood flowing.
While the evidence isn’t clear pointing to the exact reason why we have more pain with cold or changing weather, that pain is still real for everyone experiencing it. It’s good to remember that people in San Diego report the same weather-related changes as people in the Upper Midwest. Just because there isn’t a ton of evidence to support the idea that weather changes your pain perceptions doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
If you have questions, please contact us at the Essentia Health-Wahpeton Clinic — (701) 642-2000 — and hopefully we can help with any aches and pains the weather throws at you.
I hope this sheds some light on your weather-related soreness. Stay warm out there!
Andrew Zetocha, DC, is a chiropractor at Essentia Health-Wahpeton Clinic.