Cold weather and pain

It is a commonly held belief that pain is worse in the cold and damp – from years gone by, people have talked about the damp getting into their joints, and how their old injuries can ache in cold weather.  But is this actually true, or just one of those old wives’ tales that are so often quoted as fact?

According to the research, it is indeed a recognised medical phenomenon that pain is made worse by the weather turning at around this time of year.  Injuries, both old and new, make themselves known and arthritic joints tend to seize up more than ever.  It is a miserable time of year for many people – it’s just as well Christmas appears in the middle of it to lighten the gloom!

The real question is – why? What is it about those frosty mornings or damp, drizzly afternoons  that causes pain to increase?  To me it seems incredible, but even with all the scientific knowledge and resources at our disposal, we actually still have no idea!  There have been ideas thrown about, from change in the barometric pressure affecting the body to the chill causing muscles to stiffen, but nothing has actually been agreed upon or proved to be the source.

Atmospheric pressure tends to drop just before bad weather sets in, so it is thought this reduction in pressure around a body can allow the tissue around the joints to expand and therefore increase the pressure on joints.  But the effect is so minute, it is hard to believe it actually has sufficient power to cause such a significant change in the levels of pain experienced.

Another possibility is that areas where injury or degeneration has occurred in a body often have over-active nerves, and therefore any slight change around these areas can be amplified by this hyper-sensitivity.  This means that things which would pass normal, healthy tissue by completely unnoticed are picked up on and relayed to the brain as a painful sensation.

Whatever the reason, winter is a time many of us dread for the damp, cold, dark days and the increase in pain that goes with it.  The best way to cope is obviously to stay warm, but also try to keep moving.  Not only will this help keep you warmer without the need of increasing the temperature on your thermostat at home, but the increase in blood circulation around the body helps to combat any swelling around joints, keeping you more flexible and mobile and in less pain.  Emigrating could work too…. although, personally, I find the idea of a warm Christmas season too odd for comfort!

So, not a myth in the sense we know it happens…but a mystery in that we don’t know why!

First Aid – for backs!

That horrible moment when you realise that you’ve just done something that has hurt your back, and now you don’t know what to do…

One of the questions I am most often asked when people book an appointment is “what should I do in the meantime?”

In other words, they have a few hours, or maybe even a day or two, until they get into the clinic and they (quite rightly) want to get started on their recovery as soon as possible.  Or even just help a little with some of the pain.

Well, here are my golden rules for back pain – in particular, back pain that has only recently come on.  Some of them may seem a little strange, but I can tell you from firsthand experience they really do work.

  1. Keep Moving. The golden rule when it comes to most injuries is to keep it moving. This doesn’t mean you spend your entire time wandering around, it means wander around for 5 mins, then sit down for a few minutes, then try and bend forward, then walk around some more, then sit down, the try and ease backward, then walk…you get the picture.  Vary what  you are doing in as many ways as possible.  The only exception to this is twisting – don’t do it.  Or anything like lawn mowing, vacuuming and sweeping, which involves a twisting movement.
  2. 2. I Instinctively, we want to put something warm and comforting on whatever hurts. In pretty much every case of sudden onset back pain this is the WRONG thing to do. There is bound to be inflammation in the area, so you are going to be a hundred times better off putting a bag of peas on it than a hot water bottle.  5 mins of an ice packed, wrapped in a towel to protect your skin, then 10 mins with it off to allow the blood to circulate back to the area.  And repeat.
  3. Ibuprofen. See above – ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory, and we need to get that swelling under control. Check with your pharmacist or GP that you are OK to take this medication if you are unsure, then follow the guidelines on the packet or that your GP gives you.
  4. Keep Moving. Ok, already put this one in, but just thought I’d remind you how important it is! Do everything you would normally do with your day (as long as there’s no twisting involved) and you will reap the rewards. Not only does it help psychologically if you are getting on with things rather than focussing on your back pain, but it will keep things more supple and less painful.  Of course, if you start to do something and find it’s making things worse, stop.  But unless that happens, get on with your life!
  5. Book an appointment. I started this article by saying usually I get asked by people who have already booked in what they do in the meantime, but if you are reading this and wondering if you need to see a Chiropractor, then the answer is yes. Even if the pain goes away, the function may not be fully restored, risking it happening again in the future. Even if the function does restore as well as the pain going away, this happened for a reason and a Chiropractor will be able to tell you how to avoid it happening in the future.

Pillow talk

Last time, I put out my advice regarding purchasing a mattress, so I thought that I would now do a little bit about pillows.  I actually think that the pillow set-up you have is often more significant than the mattress, particularly in cases of neck and shoulder pain.

There are a few main things to think about with pillows:

  1. What position do I sleep in? The depth and type of pillow you should use varies according to whether you sleep on your side or your back. You will note I don’t mention sleeping on your front – this sleeping position potentially causes myriad problems whatever pillow you use, and is the only way of sleeping that I thoroughly do NOT recommend.  If you sleep on your side you will need a fairly deep height of pillows, whether this is achieved through a big, firm pillow or several smaller, squashier ones.  When you are settled and comfortable lying on your side, your head should remain in a straight line with the rest of your body, not tilting towards or away from the mattress.  If you sleep on your back, then in theory you don’t need anything at all behind your neck, just a small roll behind your neck for a bit of added support there.  Most people, however, find this very uncomfortable, so a thin pillow is acceptable, but you certainly don’t need anything deep.
  2. I move around a lot – what should I use? If you switch from side to your back, and generally fidget all around then there are two ways to approach this. If you spend most of your time flipping from side to side and only occasionally go onto your back, or vice versa, then choose a pillow to suit the position you are most often in.  If you really are an active all-over-the-place sleeper, then perhaps something like a feather pillow would be best – they tend to squash fairly flat if you have them on the bed in a normal arrangement (good for the time spent on your back), but can be pummelled into all sorts of shapes to keep your head in a neutral alignment with your body, whatever attitude you end up in!
  3. What should my pillow be made from? This is a personal preference issue, for the most part. If you have a dust allergy, feather pillows clearly aren’t the way to go; on the other hand, you might hate the feeling of memory foam.  There’s no point having the “right” pillow if you can’t stand to rest your head on it!  Don’t be afraid to mix it up as well – it could be that an artificial fibre pillow mixes well with a feather pillow to give you the support you need while also being flexible.
  4. What about orthopaedic pillows? Ah, where there’s an opinion on the “right” way to have something, there will be someone making money out of it. Don’t get me wrong – many people swear by orthopaedic pillows and wouldn’t use anything else.  But they are often expensive, and if you’re willing to put a bit more thought into things like the position you sleep in, you can probably find something just as suitable for a lot less money.
  5. I travel a lot – do I have to take my pillows with me?! This is another reason I tend to steer away from special pillows like those claiming to be orthopaedic. If you understand the idea behind a good pillow set-up, you can usually arrange the most horrific hotel pillows into a pretty good approximation of what you have at home.  Ok, if the hotel supplies feather pillows and you prefer memory foam there’s not much I can do about that, but you can at least make sure you don’t end up with a crick neck from having them too high, too low or generally in the wrong place.

Hope that helps a little bit – sweet dreams!