Why do I hurt so much more when it’s cold?

Erin Wilson, PT

December 4, 2018

why-do-I-hurt-kneeCountless people have told me they dread the onset of winter because the icy temperatures seem to increase their pain. For that matter, many with surgeries on joints or past broken bones will complain of stiffness when the weather changes. Why does it hurt so much more in the cold?

To answer this question that many are facing these next few months, we should probably look to what causes us to feel pain in the first place. Pain is our body’s way of saying, “Hey, watch out, you are damaging me! Do something different!” But what if there is no danger or you’ve healed from the injury, but your body keeps acting like there is danger or an injury? What if there was never an injury, but you still have pain, and it’s worse when the temperatures drop?

Well there are some things you can do, and the first thing is to understand pain. It is not the same for every person. This is why it is so hard to describe and explain. What if I told you that just by understanding the way it is created in your body, or what causes you to have the sensation, it can actually help you to be less sensitive?

"Wha, wha, what? You are telling me that just by understanding how pain is created in my body/mind I will feel less pain?"

That’s right, just by understanding it, your pain levels and sensitivity levels will decrease.

There’s another thing: If your visual system can see that you are doing something about your pain, to take the danger away, then your pain levels will decrease. Creating a management program will help address your symptoms, can decrease your sensitivity to pain, and can help you live a fuller life.

So how does this help with the cold? We can’t change the climate (unless you are like my parents and head down South for a month at a time), but we can change the state of your body right now. You see, pain is created in your body by neurotransmitters. If you have enough of them you get a message that feels like pain and starts a whole cycle of muscle guarding and discomfort. But the neurotransmitters are from all kinds of different inputs, like mechanical, temperature, and acidity. Regardless of where they come from, if you have enough of them they equal pain and start that same pain cycle.

why-do-I-hurt-coldSo, the magic bullet for riding out winter in relative ease is to stick with your management program that addresses those things you do have control over, including dressing in layers to better control your environment. I know I own gloves and hats and warm boots but sometimes I feel like it is too much trouble to get all decked out. This is really not the right attitude to take on it though, because skimping on warm gear can mean I inch closer to that pain message. Even putting on the gloves, hat, and scarf can be something that your brain sees as addressing the danger and it may be the answer to keeping you in less pain this winter!

Want to learn more about pain? Check out the book Explain Pain by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley. Want to learn how you can create your own pain management program? A physical therapist, versed in pain neuroscience education, can help!


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