Your Spine During Colder Weather: The Science Behind Pain
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Your Spine During Colder Weather: The Science Behind Pain

By Dr. Alok Sharan
Sep. 25, 2022

Fall and winter are full of fun things: beautiful weather, escape from the heat, winter sports, snow, holidays, and more. But for people with chronic inflammation or back issues, the colder seasons can also mean more pain. That old, familiar twinge in your back might flare up if you spend time outdoors in low temperatures.

Although back pain is often caused or exasperated by colder weather, it can be the catalyst for educating yourself on tips and tricks to alleviate that pain, as well as finding out what’s involved in minimally invasive spinal surgery.

First, let’s talk about ways to remedy that pain. After that, we’ll review whether there’s any scientific merit behind your pain during colder weather.

Exercise, Relax, Hydrate, and Eat Healthy

You should exercise consistently if you’re prone to seasonal depression or just want to avoid back pain in general. Despite the bitter weather, you can still get in some low-impact, inflammation-fighting exercises without exposing yourself to the colder elements.

  • Go swimming. There’s no better low-impact exercise for your back than swimming. In water, buoyancy supports your spine and takes stress off your joints while also providing a weight-free environment for you to strengthen your back muscles. Despite not being able to jump into your local pool, there are probably some indoor, heated pool options near you. You might have to pay a membership fee to a local gym or recreation center, but if you use it consistently, it pays off.
  • Take a walk. Walking is a great year-round exercise because you can do it anywhere. As well as strengthening the muscles that support your spine, walking helps bring blood flow to inflammation-prone areas of your back. When it’s cold, make sure you bundle up if you decide to walk consistently during the fall and winter months.
  • Do some indoor aerobics. Yoga is a great indoor aerobic exercise for your spine. Talk to your spinal doctor or specialist before taking a class; these exercises may aggravate your symptoms. However, many people find they can stay pain-free and avoid unnecessary spine stress during the cold months by choosing this option.
  • Stay hydrated. Keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of water. You need water to cushion and lubricate your joints, keep your skin cells full, deliver nutrients, and protect the intestinal tract lining from enzyme damage.
  • Get some sleep. It’s not a myth that most people need 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night. To perform at its best, your body needs rest. Inflammation, which causes pain, is also reduced by sleep.
  • Stay stress-free. Many people find the winter holidays stressful instead of fun. Take care of your emotional health and relax.
  • Make sure you eat your vegetables, nutrients, and vitamins. Don’t eat too many sugary foods that sabotage your immunity. Make sure you eat a balanced diet. If you take care of your body, it will take care of itself.
  • Stay warm. Heat can help you — and stretching muscles, connective tissue, and adhesions around the spine is made easier with heat. With heat therapy, stiffness decreases, flexibility increases, and overall comfort goes up. Back health depends on flexibility, and flexibility is stimulated with heat. You can even wear extra layers in bed, keep your neck and back covered by tucking in your shirt, or wear a scarf outside. During cooler nights, keep the heat on and use an electric blanket to keep your muscles from tightening.
  • Here are more exercise tips to help you get active during the fall and winter.
  • Additional healthy tips: Don’t drink too much alcohol; wear a seatbelt every time you drive; get rid of throw rugs that you could slip on at home; clean the hallway floors of clutter; stop smoking or vaping; lose weight; and get up regularly if you sit in a chair all day.

The Science Behind the Cold and Your Pain

Back and neck pain aren’t normal on a daily basis, so you should consult a minimally invasive spine surgeon if you are experiencing it regularly. And if you happen to be suffering from chronic low-back pain, you’ll want to know the facts behind decompression treatment versus minimally invasive back surgery.

So, is back pain caused by cold weather? The short answer is yes, but the devil is in the details. Back pain can be caused by cold weather because it tightens muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the spine. Spinal strain and nerve-root pulls can cause pain to sensitive nerve roots that exit the spine. Swelling and pain can also occur if joints are already inflamed.

But what does the science say? Although it’s debated why cold weather causes back pain, there’s no denying it happens. Low temperatures connected to pain reports have been proven in several major domestic and international studies. Researchers have found that workers in colder outside temperatures report more back and neck pain than those who worked inside most of the time.

Several issues could be causing this. Structures that support the spine get tighter in cold weather. When it’s chilly outside, do you ever feel your body stiffen up? Cold weather makes your back hurt, and this is a completely natural response.

Your body goes through a process called vasoconstriction in colder weather. It’s when blood vessels in your extremities narrow and get diverted to vital areas like your brain, heart, lungs, and bowels. Less blood means stiff muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If you’ve ever tried to type or text on your phone after your fingers got cold and found that you moved slowly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. Your spine is supported by the same structures. It puts extra strain on your back when there is less blood flow to the structures supporting your spine in cold weather.

However, in most cases, spine pain isn’t caused by a problem with the spine itself, but rather from strain or injury to the muscles, tendons and ligaments that support it. It can feel like your back hurts when these tissues are stiff and pulling on the spine’s nerve endings, even though the source of the pain isn’t the spine. The tighter or colder the muscles, tendons, or ligaments are, the more vulnerable they are to injury.

Another common reaction to a drop in temperature is shivering. The body produces heat by shivering through quick muscle contractions. Despite its subtle nature, it can also leave muscles feeling tight, stiff, and cramped.

Due to your body’s natural response to colder weather, back pain is more likely.

Swelling & Inflammation from Barometric Pressure Changes

It’s been hotly debated for years whether barometric pressure causes back pain. Until now, there’s no scientific study that proves back pain can be caused by a drop in pressure. People have “felt” storms coming for thousands of years simply by noticing the pain in their joints.

Despite the fact that there’s no clear-cut scientific link between barometric pressure and back pain, the anecdotal reports throughout history are too big to ignore.

If barometric pressure drops before a storm or the temperature changes dramatically, there’s less gravity to prevent swelling in joints that might already be inflamed from injury, or condition. Nerves around the joint will feel swelling and signal increased pain.

Back Pain Aggravated by Cold, Dark, ‘Depressing’ Days

Cold weather and dark days can contribute to seasonal depression, which can cause or aggravate back pain. Depression that usually starts in the fall and lasts through winter is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Decreased amounts of sunshine or a drop in serotonin levels can all cause seasonal depression.

People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder are more likely to get back pain. Depression may increase inflammation through proteins called cytokines, according to some studies. Cell signaling molecules called cytokines stimulate healing cells for fighting infection and inflammation sites. Too many cytokines can cause inflammation, leading to depression and back pain.

In addition to fatigue, increased pain, and decreased interest in daily activities, seasonal depression can make it hard for people to exercise and strengthen the muscles supporting their spines, which can lead to back pain.

Shorter Days & Cold Weather Can Discourage Exercise

Like we discussed above, back pain can be warded off with low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, or biking. In the fall and winter, though, it can be too cold and dangerous to ride a bike or walk regularly. Because of this, most people take a break from exercise until the weather warms up.

Back pain sufferers shouldn’t do this. Each year from September to March, Americans exercise less according to long-term Gallup studies.

Whether exercising or not, it’s helpful to buy some traction-friendly winter boots. Taking a fall can lead to serious, painful spinal problems such as a herniated disc or fractured vertebrae. While you’re out and about during the colder months, good boots will keep you from slipping on ice or wet surfaces.

Exercise Remains the Key

Just remember: Exercise keeps your muscles strong. If you don’t work-out when it’s chilly, you’re putting yourself at risk of injury. There’s a lot of back-intensive chores to do in the fall and winter, like raking leaves, shoveling snow, putting up Christmas lights, and maybe even chopping wood.

Back pain is likely to occur if your back is not strong enough to handle these activities. Awake Spinal Fusion is here to educate you on the basics of your back, as well as whether outpatient lower back surgery or awake spine surgery could be right for your situation.