Winter and RA: Surviving the Cold

Patient Expert

Weather is a common trigger for RA flares, with cold temperatures being high on the list of what can increase pain. Those of us who also live with fibromyalgia can experience a double whammy of pain. Winter this year seems to be flexing its muscles on a weekly basis. Snowstorms, ice storms, flash freezing, a polar vortex—the news is full of winter weather stories. For those of us living with RA, this kind of weather can make each day a struggle.

What can you do to cope?

I’ve spent the last few months dealing with higher pain levels than usual. In addition to the usual increase in pain, stiffness and  fatigue I feel every winter, I’ve had a few other issues that have made life more interesting. There was an excruciating back spasm that lasted weeks and is still not quite healed, then a pinched nerve in one shoulder that causes jolts of pain into my thumb every time I use the computer, as well as triggering TMJ symptoms.

Alas, I’m not the only one who’s having a tough winter. All my friends with RA and fibromyalgia are coping with higher pain levels and getting through the days on will power. Short of moving to Fiji, there’s not much we can do about the weather. But there are ways to make winter more bearable.

Coping with pain

First, stay warm. Being warm keeps your body from tensing up, which can aggravate your pain levels. The key to being warm in the winter is to dress in several layers because heat gets trapped between each layer.  Start with thermal underwear, add a pair of corduroy pants and a wool or fleece sweater, as well as wool socks. If you know a knitter, ask them to make you a pair. Add heat whenever you can. Last year, a good friend gave me a heated blanket, which has been a godsend, both for me and my cat. A heated mattress cover is also a terrific idea, as is embracing your inner Scandinavian and buying yourself a down comforter. If you have pets or children, let them sleep in your bed—they add heat

Take your pain meds. This is no time to exercise your stiff upper lip and soldier on. Staying ahead of the pain is a race and never more so than in the winter. Take your pain meds on a regular schedule, even if you aren’t in a lot of pain. Having pain medication in your body all the time will make it less likely that you have intense bouts of pain.

Be good to yourself. When your pain levels are higher and the trip to Flare City shorter, cut down on your to-do list and neutralize your guilt instinct. Stress has a definite impact on chronic pain, so try to reduce stress whenever you can. Remember that there are no “shoulds” when you’re in survival mode. Pace yourself and work within your limits, even if it means you don’t get everything done. Do what you absolutely have to do, leave the rest for another (warmer) day.

Dealing with depression

Winter is not just about increased levels of pain; it can also be a challenging time emotionally. Dealing with more pain and the misery of winter weather can be a drain on your energy. Think about what you can do to increase or maintain your energy levels, get plenty of rest and pace yourself. Listen to your body—it will tell you what it needs. Hibernation may not be practical, but getting more rest is always a good idea, as is eating good, hearty foods and indulging in undemanding television and books.

If you find yourself more irritable, cranky or sad during the winter months, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). During the dark months of the year, the lack of light can affect the chemistry in your body, causing you to experience depression in the winter. Light therapy can be tremendously helpful. This involves spending a set time a day sitting in front of a light box that mimics outdoor light. Choosing the right light box for you can take a bit of research, but it can be a good investment.

Talk to your doctor

If you continue to have a tough time coping with pain, talk to your doctor. Your rheumatologist may be able to help you with a prescription for a low dose of prednisone, a systemic steroid shot or perhaps you need better pain management. Having less pain can have an incredible impact on your mood. If your feelings of depression persist, make an appointment to see your family doctor to talk about antidepressants. There is no shame in getting a bit of help when so many parts of winter work against you. Do whatever you can to make it easier.

Lene Andersen is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain. Her new book is 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain. Her personal blog is The Seated View.