Dealing with aches and pains when the temperatures drop


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Aches and pains can occur anytime during the year, but the cold and wet weather of winter can worsen discomfort and pain.

When we are cold, our body restricts the amount of blood it sends to hands and feet, so that it can focus on sending adequate blood flow and oxygen to the heart and lungs.  As a result, we lose less heat from blood circulating near the skin’s surface, our arms and leg. As our joints receive less blood flow, they may feel stiff, tight and uncomfortable.

If you suffer from chronic conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other aches and pains associated with previous injuries, winter weather can exacerbate your symptoms. In addition, shorter daylight hours and icy conditions can keep us increasingly homebound, which may lead to a lack of exercise worsening the problem.

Here are some tips for minimizing winter’s impact on your physical well-being:

Sore muscles and aching joints. Staying warm and keeping active are keys to managing winter pain and stiffness, particularly if you suffer from arthritis. And, no, these two tips are not mutually exclusive.

Arthritis is caused by the wear and tear of cartilage in a joint. When you stay active, stiffness is less likely to occur. Dress warmly with layers of clothes to help trap the heat next to your body. You may consider the use of hot/cold compresses to soothe any aches and pains.

To avoid injury from slips or falls, be sure to wear warm footwear with good tread. Be careful to walk only on well-shoveled walkways. Do some simple stretches before you leave home to prepare your muscles, just as you would before a gym work-out.

Be sure to take frequent breaks if you are outside for a long period of time. Even if you are sitting in bleachers outside in the cold, you can be putting strain on your neck and shoulders. Shift your position often, by standing up, bending forward and gently stretching the muscles in your neck, arm and shoulder to avoid stiffness. Be sure to wear a hat and a scarf to keep your head and shoulders warm.

Lack of Vitamin D. Less time outdoors and shorter daylight hours can contribute to a shortage of Vitamin D in our bodies. Vitamin D deficiencies can contribute to muscular aches and pains. Ask your doctor about a Vitamin D supplement or try adding Vitamin D-rich foods to your diet. These include: salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel as well as mushrooms, egg yolks, fortified milk and liver.

Seasonal depression. Less daylight can cause you to feel depressed or more anxious. Scientists believe that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is related to hormonal changes. Less sunlight during fall and winter causes brain to make less serotonin, a chemical linked to mood regulation. Symptoms of SAD during the winter include:

  • Reduced energy
  • Problems with concentration
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Increased appetite
  • Desire to be alone
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches

To help fight seasonal depression, doctors suggest you get as much exposure to natural light as you can. Take a morning walk, for example, or read by the light of a window whenever possible.
Here are some other ideas for limiting the discomforts that may come along with winter weather.

1. Take warm baths. Soaking in a warm bath can help ease body aches and stiffness. Consider adding Epsom salts, which are rich in magnesium, to the water to help relieve joint pain.

2. Stay hydrated. Not drinking enough fluid can contribute to bodily aches and pains. One reason is that your body cannot process waste products effectively when you are dehydrated. In addition, winter air can be dry, especially heated indoor air. You can help your skin stay healthy and moist by drinking plenty of fresh water. Also consider using a lip balm and skin moisturizer, especially after bathing.

3. Avoid shoveling snow. According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, nearly 12,000 people are treated for snow-shoveling related injuries each winter. Shoveling can cause neck, back and shoulder injuries as well as chest pain. It’s best to leave the shoveling to someone else if you can. If you have to do some shoveling, use your legs — not your back– when you bend down to lift the shovel. Use a lightweight ergonomic shovel with a curved shaft to help keep your back upright and pick up small amounts of snow. Also avoid shoveling repeatedly only in one direction, which can cause stress and strain.

Finally, listen to your body. If you feel the signs of a cold or flu coming on, it’s time to increase your fluids and to get more rest. Pace yourself. It’s okay to limit your activities on a very cold day. Learn what works for you in terms of pain management, and remember that relaxation can be a powerful tool no matter what type of discomfort you are experiencing.

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