Clients suffering chronic pain always tell me that when Autumn arrives they fear the inevitable change in the weather; months of cold, damp days ahead and the inescapable worsening of their pain. Some people who have been relatively active and able through the Summer find that they have little choice but to resign themselves to a lengthy period of semi-hibernation as their levels of pain become all-consuming.
One client told me recently that she no longer needs to watch the weather forecast on television as changes in the nature and intensity of her pain clearly foretell the approach of inclement weather.
Surprisingly, however, there is little scientific evidence for a link between the weather and increased pain. The research that has been carried out has been relatively small scale and is conflicting.
Studies in relation to arthritis do support a correlation between cold, damp days and flare-ups in the condition. Changes in air pressure results in increased knee pain in people with arthritis, while colder weather can cause painful changes in the thickness of joint fluid.
A study in relation to osteoarthritis suggests that chronic pain may actually alter the way that nerves respond to cold and air pressure stimuli and increase their sensitivity.
Despite the current lack of weight of scientific evidence for the proposition, it is clear to anybody suffering chronic pain, or those in close association with them, that the weather does play a clear role in levels of pain. Indeed, a pain physician once explained to me that the medical profession accept that nerve conduction velocity (to us laymen that is the speed at which an electrical impulse travels through a nerve) slows as affected limbs become colder. As a result of that lower velocity, existing nerve damage is accentuated. To put it simply – nerves do become more sensitive in the cold!
A significant proportion of our clients suffer Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). We know that those suffering CRPS should not be treated with ice packs. Ice can worsen the symptoms of CRPS and cause it to accelerate and spread. Ice constricts blood vessels and damages the Myelin Sheath which surrounds the nerves, causing scar tissue to form which inhibits the nerves ability to send messages correctly. In the same way, is it possible that extended periods of exposure to cold weather in a limb or limbs already suffering fluctuating temperature changes, can also cause damage to the Myelin Sheath, just at a significantly slower pace?
At the moment that, along with so much on this topic, remains conjecture. However, in light of the overwhelmingly supportive anecdotal evidence, it would be reassuring to see more widespread evidence-based research in this area.