Many people are fans of apple pie season, fall foliage, and Halloween, but not everyone is partial to the cold, crisp air and the sometimes unpredictable weather the season ushers in. For people living with chronic illnesses in particular, everything from yo-yoing temperatures and precipitation, to changes in atmospheric pressure, can trigger stiffness, aches, and all-around discomfort. Managing chronic pain as the weather changes can be more challenging than other times during the year, but certain techniques and products can help soothe your seasonal aches.
Dr. Anisha Dua, MD, MPH, a rheumatologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, explained in a 2018 article that one theory is that drops in barometric pressure can cause muscles, tendons, and bodily tissues to expand — which, in turn, can cause pain in the joints because of “confined” space in the body. In addition to joint pain, the American Migraine Foundation reported that seasonal triggers such as pressure changes and fluctuating temperatures can bring on an influx of migraine attacks or headaches. Interestingly, a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also revealed that menstrual pain was more severe in lower temperatures.
It’s important to note, though, that some of the research about how seasonal changes affect chronic pain is conflicting. One study conducted in 2017 found that weather had no significant impact on lower back pain or knee osteoarthritis.
Still, it’s not uncommon for people with chronic illnesses to feel like the weather plays a role in experiencing an uptick of pain-related symptoms. “Extreme temperatures either way can really mess me up, but I find transitioning to the cold especially difficult,” Kell, 32, tells Bustle. Here’s what 16 people who live with chronic pain swear by during seasonal changes, so you can cope with whatever the weather throws your way.
1. Freja, 24
For Freja, keeping a wheat or cherry stone heating pad on hand has been a “total lifesaver” when it comes to dealing with chronic pain brought on by seasonal changes. Wheat and cherry stone heating pads are natural alternatives (made respectively from grains and cherry pits) to electric heating pads, and can be warmed up in a microwave. Further, she says that she wears soccer socks to help with muscle aches.
2. Kaja, 42
“As anyone with chronic illness(es) knows, every day is different and requires a variety of strategies. I get cold, and as a result tense very easily, so I have a desk heater in both my office and at home,” Kaja tells Bustle. “I also ramp up my lotion game. […] It keeps the skin smooth and soft, and it helps calm my aching hands.”
They add that, “In spring and summer, I try to get out and walk when I’m able since movement helps lubricate the joints, and calms my anxiety.”
3. Rebecca, 27
Rebecca says that her foundational coping methods, like taking her medications and finding balance, stay the same all year round. “It’s the weather itself that causes symptoms I have to manage,” they say, adding that they use arm and leg warmers, as well as a heating pad, to help soothe achy joints during colder months.
4. Jeanne, 50
For Jeanne, not being able to regulate her body temperature in sometimes unpredictable weather can trigger her pain and discomfort.
“My best advice? Dress in layers. A comfortable body is a soothed body. Tank top, t-shirt, overshirt, light jacket: This gives you four layers, three of which you can take on or off as needed. I also carry a light hat and gloves at all times.”
5. Alaina, 32
“I was diagnosed with endometriosis as a teen, and am now in my 30s, which means I’ve had over a decade of chronic pain management practice. My primary strategy for symptom relief includes a combination of electric heating pads, indica cannabis, and hot baths,” Alaina says.
6. Lark, 22
Lark, who struggles with joint pain and osteoarthritis, explains that the cold and damp weather that often comes with fall triggers their pain. To cope, they say, “It sounds nerdy, but I wear long underwear every day if my outfit can allow for it.”
They add that they also regularly wear warm, long coats that go past their hips to help with their chronic pain.
7. Lisa Marie, 41
“I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and fibromyalgia. Winters here are rough,” says Lisa Marie, who says she generally always keeps her house prepared as if a blizzard is around the corner. “This all saves me a ton of time if I wake up incapacitated.”
“My best piece of advice, though, is to stop being as demanding of yourself during these weather changes. Pushing through extreme pain will only bring on more, so be gentle to yourself,” she adds.
8. Neff, 30
“I have thermal leggings and long-sleeve base layers which provide me with comfortable, lightweight warmth when outside. Inside, my electric blanket is my best friend, and we always have a heap of blankets on the bed,” Neff says, adding that they always have hand warmers and arm warmers if they are doing an activity like knitting or reading.
Their go-to when their pain flares in really cold weather? “A half-hour in a hot bath every night is a must,” they say.
9. Lisa Ann, 28
For Lisa Ann, who has fibromyalgia, colder temperatures bring on an influx of symptoms related to the health disorder. She says that she has her infrared heating pad, strong CBD salve, and tons of Vitamin C on hand to help her to stay on top on chronic pain throughout the winter months.
Furthermore, she says that, “To combat [the seasonal pain], I’ve been doing Headspace’s pain management course to, as they say, ‘change my relationship with pain,’ and feel slightly more in control of the inevitable discomfort of damp fall and freezing winter.”
10. Charlie, 16
“Managing chronic pain during season changes is really tricky, [but] the best thing that has helped me is a weighted blanket. The pressure isn’t as warm as a quilt so it works in summer, but it still has enough weight that it puts pressure on my muscles,” Charlie says. “Another thing that helps me is stretching every morning.”
11. Marcia, 36
Since Marcia says her chronic pain changes day to day during the fall and spring, her coping skills do, too. “What works for me one time may totally fail me the next,” she says. “My best advice is to be flexible in your scheduling for fall and spring, so that when the pain flares up, you can rearrange your obligations.”
12. Andrea, 27
To cope with chronic pain during winter months, Andrea likes to end her day with a warm bath filled with epsom salts. “I find these make me feel super tired, which allows my body to rest deeply, and I always feel rejuvenated the next day,” she says.
Andrea also says that she always has an electric blanket on hand in the house to soothe her achiness, and never leaves home without a fleece blanket so she has a “barrier” from freezing temps.
13. Annesley, 28
“I often find that my disabilities get worse with weather changes — some are worse in the heat, some are worse in the cold. In the winter, I often ask my service dog to lay on a pressure point where my pain is particularly bad. The deep pressure she provides, along with her warmth, often helps to improve my symptoms,” Annesley says.
14. Kell, 32
“To help I’ve started to stash blankets, hot water bottles, gloves, and slippers everywhere I’m likely to be,” Kell says. “I’ve found that knowing that I’ve always got something to hand to help warm up and deal with the increased cramps, aches, and pains that come with the cold helps psychologically, as well as physically.”
15. Alex, 23
“When the weather changes and my pain increases, I have to double down on prioritizing my own health. I spend extra time foam rolling/stretching, visiting my [physical therapist], sleeping, and saying ‘no,'” Alex says.
She adds that, “When my pain feels the worst, I do my best to remind myself that this period will pass, and [I] focus on the tools I have to help myself until the weather evens out again.”
16. Eliza, 41
As someone who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, Eliza says that her chronic pain never quite goes away when the seasons change, but she has found ways over the years to manage it. “Things that help me cope include taking baths with Epsom salts, sleeping as much as possible, and using my SAD lamp to minimize effects of shorter days on my mood,” she says, adding she also takes “a daily dose of Tylenol Arthritis in the evenings, and sleeping aids when needed.”
The shift in seasons and fluctuating temps can make managing chronic pain more difficult than during the rest of the year. You may have to switch up from your normal self-care routine depending on the wintery conditions. However, adopting a few of these tips from other people living with chronic pain may help you, quite literally, weather the storm.