Cold Weather & Pain in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

How Weather Sensitivity Plays a Role in These Illnesses

Couple's feet warming at a fireplace

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A common complaint from people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome is that cold weather makes their pain worse. The cold seems to get into the bones and make everything tighten up and ache. Medical science has found a possible reason for this: an abnormally high number of sensory nerves in the circulatory system.

In fibromyalgia, the cold can make the skin hurt, and when you get chilled it can be extremely hard to warm back up. Still, research is split on the exact nature of cold's impact.

Extra Nerves

In 2013, a study published in the journal Pain Medicine stated that researchers found extra sensory nerves running to structures in the circulatory system called arterial venule shunts (AVS). The AVS act like valves, allowing and restricting the flow of blood, which is what carries heat through the body.

The theory is that the additional nerves mean the AVS get exaggerated information about input such as pain and temperature, and that makes them respond improperly. This could account for the tendency for people with fibromyalgia's hands and feet to get chilled and have trouble warming up. We'll need more research to know for sure what's going on and what treatments may help counter it.

Conflicting Findings

It's well established that temperature impacts people with fibromyalgia more than it does other people—it's even used in research because it reliably causes pain in fibromyalgia more readily than in healthy folks. Specifically, it's a good indicator of the lowered pain thresholds (the point at which sensation becomes painful) that are a hallmark of this condition.

A 2015 Belgian study confirmed that bodies with fibromyalgia adapt differently to low temperatures. In fact, it was so hard for the participants with fibromyalgia to tolerate cold that it actually hampered the research!

In a 2015 study, participants with fibromyalgia reported that weather changes were a major cause of symptom flares, right along with stress, overdoing it, and poor sleep. However, these were self-reports, which may not be accurate.

Some research has concluded against a connection between weather and fibromyalgia pain. A 2013 study published in Arthritis Care & Research stated that:

  • There wasn't a universal connection
  • That certain individuals did appear sensitive to certain weather conditions
  • There weren't characteristics in patients that appeared to predict weather sensitivity

Personal Stories

When you talk to people with fibromyalgia, there's generally little disagreement about the impact of cold. It's common to find questions and comments like these:

"Weather is the biggest offender. I'd love to know if people who live in states where it's warm & dry have fewer symptoms?" -JennyG

"I have to move to Arizona.........winters in the midwest are brutal to fibro for me." -al sleet

"I live in the UK where the weather is often damp and cold, even in summer! We have now bought an apartment in Spain, because after a 'trial run' in a villa there in October 2009, where I found myself in a lot less pain (weather, less stress, less housework, etc.) we decided that it was a much better climate for me!" -Sharon

"I live in southern Arizona where we recently went through an unusual and dramatic cold snap (while everyone else was getting massive snow and ice) which broke many records. I noticed when the front came through my muscles tightened up quickly and the achiness went through the roof. I moved here from Kansas last year because the changes in barometric pressure and temps were rapid and frequent as well as for the sun which I find very therapeutic. I was quickly reminded of the effects of sudden weather changes on my pain levels." -delere

At the same time, many with this illness are heat sensitive, and some are sensitive to both heat and cold. This makes it hard to manage no matter the weather or climate you live in. To manage the symptom, it takes paying attention to your environment and how it's impacting your body and thinking ahead for those times when you know you'll be dealing with extremes.

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Article Sources

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  1. Brusselmans G, et al. Skin temperature during cold pressor test in fibromyalgia: an evaluation of the autonomic nervous system. Acta anaesthesiologica Begica. 2015;66(1):19-27.

  2. Vincent A, Whipple MO, Rhudy LM. Fibromyalgia flares: a qualitative analysis. Pain medicine. 2016 Mar;17(3):463-468. doi:10.1111/pme.12676

  3. Bossema ER, van Middendorp H, Jacobs JW, Bijlsma JW, Geenen R. Influence of weather on daily symptoms of pain and fatigue in female patients with fibromyalgia: a multilevel regression analysis. Arthritis care & research. 2013 Jul;65(7):1019-25. doi:10.1002/acr.22008

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