Sail Through Winter Without Fibromyalgia Pain

Winter weather means more than icy roads and frigid temperatures for people with fibromyalgia.

Many women who live with the chronic, widespread pain of fibromyalgia get winter “flares,” or periods of worsened symptoms. 

“I experience more muscle pain when it’s cold and damp,” says Lana Barhum, a Cleveland, Ohio, resident who’s had fibromyalgia for eight years. 

As many as 4 million Americans — 80 to 90 percent of them women — have fibromyalgia, a complex collection of symptoms that can include muscle, tendon, and ligament pain; fatigue; multiple tender points; and depression, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

How Cold Weather Affects Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Cold temperatures and changing barometric pressure can increase pain for women with fibromyalgia, but the exact reason is unclear. 

“It’s most likely due to the hypersensitized central nervous system, which misinterprets a nerve signal for cold as a signal for pain,” says Ginevra Liptan, MD, medical director at the Frida Center for Fibromyalgia in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and author of The FibroManual: A Complete Fibromyalgia Treatment Guide for You…and Your Doctor(Ballantine Books). She also has fibromyalgia. 

But you can take steps to cope with the cold. 

“Education and self-empowerment go a long way in managing fibromyalgia and chronic pain,” says Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University.

Here are 8 tips to get through the winter with ease:

1. Talk to Your Doctor
Don’t tough it out. Tell your physician how colder weather makes you feel. 

“For a long time, I refused to ask my doctor to prescribe a mild pain medication for my winter flares, but I can’t function or provide for my family if I’m in pain,” Barhum says. “Now, I have pain medication on hand if I sense a flare coming.”

2. Get More Sleep
Studies of women with fibromyalgia “typically [show] light sleep, and abnormal ‘awake-type’ brain waves [throughout the] night,” Dr. Liptan says. 

The result: “Deep-sleep deprivation causes changes in the brain and body that lead to pain, among other symptoms,” she says. 

That can become a vicious cycle: Pain keeps you from sleeping, and lack of sleep increases symptoms. That’s why making sure you get ample high-quality sleep is important — all year round. 

Practicing good “sleep hygiene” is essential. For a better night’s rest: 

  • Stick to a regular bedtime
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Don’t eat a big meal in the evening
  • Avoid exercise before bed
  • Shut off electronic devices

3. Stay Warm
When muscles get cold, they tighten and spasm, worsening fibromyalgia pain. 

“If you’re cold-sensitive and notice increased pain in the winter, bundle up,” Dr. Mackey advises. “And, if possible, take a warm bath at night.” 

Warm baths relax the muscles, lower stress levels, and may improve sleep as a result. 

Also try deep-breathing exercises, which can help relax muscles, Dr. Liptan says.

4. Cut Down on Stress
Winter can create a perfect storm of stress, with social obligations, bad weather, treacherous roads, and work deadlines. 

All that stress can increase fibromyalgia pain, according to 2015 research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology

But proven stress-reduction strategies, such as mindful meditation and yoga, for example, can tamp down pain. So can the most basic stress-reduction strategy: Not taking on more responsibilities than you can handle. 

“I used to host Thanksgiving, but now I make the turkey and take it to my mom’s house,” Barhum says. “I’ve [learned] that hosting is too taxing on my body.”

5. Exercise — the Right Way
Regular exercise is one of the most beneficial fibromyalgia treatments, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But cold, stormy weather, slick sidewalks and shorter days create obstacles to exercise. 

Overcoming those blocks and practicing regular, gentle aerobic exercise is an important step in managing fibromyalgia pain, depression and other symptoms. 

Find a local indoor water aerobics or yoga class. Pool exercises may be beneficial for improving wellness, symptoms and fitness in adults with fibromyalgia, according to a 2014 review by Canadian researchers at the University of Saskatchewan. 

Yoga has also been shown to improve daily function, improve mood, and relieve pain for people with fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions, according to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications. If winter weather makes getting to a class too difficult, you can also do easy poses at home. 

But before lacing up your jogging shoes, first develop an exercise plan with your doctor that’s safe for your fitness level and goals. Also, pace yourself. 

“People living with chronic pain [tend] to overdo exercise on days they feel well, which they pay for in the following days,” Dr. Mackey says.

6. See the Light
Depression is a common fibromyalgia symptom, and winter’s darker days and increased stress may intensify these feelings. 

“Emotionally, winter can be rough,” Barhum says. “When I start to feel depressed, I reach out to my doctor and we figure out what I need, because depression and pain go hand-in-hand.” 

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can “increase depressive symptoms,” Dr. Mackey says. 

Even if you live in a cold, northern climate, however, it’s possible to re-create the benefits of sunshine indoors with a light box. 

“Morning bright light can go a long way toward reversing seasonal effects,” Dr. Mackey says. 

He also recommends supplementing “with reasonable amounts of vitamin D.”

7. Eat Well
“Winter sends people into hibernation,” says Dr. Mackey. “We slow down and eat more, especially carbohydrates and unhealthy foods.” 

No clear, across-the-board link has been found between fibromyalgia pain and specific foods or additives. 

But personal food sensitivities can play a role in pain. Many popular triggers — gluten, dairy and sugar — are common ingredients in winter comfort foods. 

Avoiding those triggers might make a difference in pain levels, Dr. Liptan says. 

Pay attention to how specific foods affect your fibromyalgia symptoms. 

“Listen closely to your body to discover which foods make you feel worse, or feel better,” Dr. Liptan advises. “Modify your diet accordingly.”

8. Reach Out 
In-person and online support communities can offer valuable emotional healing. So ask your physician about local support groups, or visit the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association website for a nationwide listing of support groups and advocacy resources. 

Because fibromyalgia can be difficult to describe to others, connecting with people who know where you’re coming from can validate your feelings and symptoms.

“Emotional healing can come from someone who knows exactly how you feel,” Dr. Liptan says. 

They also may provide information about how to manage the condition. 

As a patient advocate for the Fibromyalgia Connect online health community (now known as upwellbeing), Barhum knows the benefit of connecting with other patients.

“I reach out to others who understand my struggles,” she says. “[The fact that they understand] what I’m feeling physically — and especially emotionally – really helps.”


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