Summer time is here. After a chilly spring, it’s finally sunny and H-O-T. We usually associate this season with fun and relaxation. But for many people with chronic pain, the heat and humidity of summer weather only means an increase in their pain levels. If I step outside on a scorching summer day, with the sun beating down, it only takes a few minutes before I feel fatigued, and lightheaded.
What Causes Increased Pain in the Summer?
Chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia (FMS) are affected by summer weather. People with nervous system sensitization or disruption have trouble regulating their body temperature, especially when exposed to weather extremes (hot or cold). Specifically, exposure to hot temperatures can lead to muscle pain, headaches, and worsened fatigue. Excessive sweating can lead to dehydration and loss of electrolytes, which also contributes to muscle pain, headache, fatigue and other symptoms.
Joint pain can be worsened by summer weather, like high humidity or low pressure systems, which cause summer storms. Joint pain is a symptom of several types of arthritis, which commonly co-exist with fibromyalgia.
Did you know that there are sensory nerve receptors in your joints that detect changes in barometric pressure? They are called ‘baroreceptors’. High humidity or low pressure conditions can trigger baroreceptors, causing uncomfortable pressure in your joints. You may feel this as tightness or stiffness in your joints. Dehydration can also reduce the fluid in your joints. Since joint fluid helps to lubricate movement, less fluid can lead to more pain.
Insomnia is another significant cause of increased pain in the summer (often called “painsomnia” in the chronic pain community). It can be difficult to sleep during hot summer nights. Many studies show that poor quality sleep causes increased pain levels. Keeping cool at night is a top priority for people with chronic pain.
Finally, people tend to be more active during the warmer months of the year. Summer invites activities like walking outdoors, picnics, and swimming. Special events often take place in the summer, like weddings, national holidays, or vacations. Exerting yourself more than usual during this season can increase your pain levels.
Strategies for Pain Management in Warm Weather
Kick Dehydration to the Curb: You already know that, in the summer, it’s even more crucial to drink your eight glasses of water a day. You lose more water from your body through perspiration in warm weather. It’s important to replace that water so you don’t become dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue and heat exhaustion – which can all exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms.
But Don’t Forget Electrolytes: an often forgotten aspect of dehydration is replacing electrolytes lost by sweating. Electrolytes are substances that carry an electric charge and are responsible for nerve and muscle function, and regulating blood pressure, blood pH and other vital bodily functions. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. You might think of sports drinks like Gatorade as the best source of electrolyte replacement, but these drinks cause their own problems. The added sugar will only cause energy crashes after the initial sugar high, as well as long term harm to your liver, pancreas, and teeth.
Did you know fruit is an excellent natural source of electrolytes? Try making your water more hydrating (and tasty) by infusing it with fruit. Fruit-infused water is made by putting fruit into a pitcher of water and letting it soak for several hours or overnight. Think strawberry, lemon and basil water or watermelon and mint water, among other recipes. Try to use organic or well-washed fruit to avoid any pesticide residue. Put a small pinch of sea salt for additional electrolytes! Coconut water is another excellent source of natural electrolytes and can help replace lost potassium and sodium. Use it in your fruit-infusions or drink it on its own. You might be thinking “so why don’t I just drink juice?” Most juices contain the entire amount of daily sugar a woman is recommended to have in one glass! Instead of raising insulin and blood sugar levels, and then crashing later, fruit infused water contains far less sugar.
Carry a water bottle with you so that you can stay hydrated throughout the day. If you don’t like plain water, or haven’t infused it with fruit, try adding lemon or cucumber to plain iced water, or making iced tea (think herbal or de-caffeinated if making a large pitcher). Avoid more than 1 to 2 cups of coffee, because caffeine is diuretic, which can worsen dehydration. Ditto with alcohol. If you have trouble remembering to drink water, try to tie this new habit to something you routinely do, such as having a glass of water before each meal, as well as when you wake up and go to bed.
Stay Cool on the Go: try a cooling fitness towel when you are out and about. When wet, these towels are designed to feel cooler than the air temperature, and provide relief from the heat (but don’t drip). They can also wick away moisture from perspiration. Run the towel under cool water, put it around your neck, and feel cool for 2-3 hours.
One of my favorite gadgets is a mini USB fan that can plug into your smart phone! This helpful little fan plugs into your phone (where the charger goes) or power bank and provides instant relief for your face and neck in the heat. They typically weigh less than an ounce! This is such a life saver in a hot waiting room, vehicle or sidewalk. You can also buy chargeable electric handheld fans to take on the go.
Stay Cool at Home: it’s important to try to maintain a constant, cool temperature during a heat wave. You already know that air conditioning and fans can help to maintain a cooler indoor temperature. Put a damp cloth in the freezer for several hours and then wipe your face, neck arms and legs with it to cool off. Applying an ice pack to the back of your neck or the inside of your wrists can also help. If humidity worsens your pain, consider running a dehumidifier in your home. The temperature can be less of a factor causing your pain than dampness in the air, especially if your have joint pain. Blackout blinds are vital for keeping your bedroom cool for resting on hot summer days.
Sun Protection: this is key to avoid flare-ups that could be caused by sunburn or heat exhaustion. Try to stay out of direct sunlight, use sunscreen, and wear a hat; basically everything your mother told you to do in the summer. Sun protection clothing that blocks harmful UV rays can really help to lower the risk of sun burn and heat stroke. UV protection sunglasses can also help reduce the impact of brightness on your eyes, which is a migraine trigger for some.
Last summer I finally admitted that I needed more protection because I felt instant fatigue from the sun beating down on me every time I stepped outside. So I went online and found a UV protection umbrella, with a pretty floral pattern, that I use as a modern day parasol! It may look a bit eccentric, but I feel pretty pleased with my choice when I’m walking beside my husband (who is too manly to use a parasol), while he squints and perspires from the heat!
Replace Heat Therapy with Cold Therapy: if you routinely use a heating pad for your pain, try replacing it with an ice pack, especially during a heat wave!
Pacing is particularly key during the increased activity levels we often associate with summer months. With the additional physical stress from heat, it’s especially important to stick to your boundaries, no matter what expectations friends or family members may place on you.
Consider an Activity Tracker: I find a wearable actually tracker quite helpful for making sure I don’t overexert myself. It can be difficult to compare different activities, like a neighbourhood walk with an afternoon by the beach. Knowing how many steps I’ve taken helps me to pace myself during the day.
Log Your Symptoms: if you are unsure what effect the weather has on your pain levels, try keeping a daily log of the temperature and weather conditions, along with your pain levels. This might help you to identify pain triggers. You can also note any strategies you have tried to reduce your pain levels, and what impact they may have had. Overtime this will help you to identify more effective solutions for coping with pain in the summer months.