How Summer Heat May Worsen Your Chronic Pain

The Link Between Temperature and Pain Is Widely Reported

Beating the Heat to Minimize Pain

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There are a number of pain disorders reportedly influenced by temperature, and while experts cannot always explain the "why" behind this influence, the fact that it's so commonly noted cannot be ignored.

With that, you may be surprised to learn that while many people associate bad weather (for example, cold and rainy) with "bad pain," a hot, sticky summer day can aggravate a pain disorder, as well. In fact, for some people, heat is actually worse than cold for their pain.

Chronic Pain Disorders and Heat

Let's take a look at a few chronic pain disorders, how they may be influenced by the hot temperatures of summer, and what you can do to proactively beat the heat.

Arthritis

It's common for people with osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis (for example, rheumatoid arthritis) to link weather with their pain. While most cite damp, rainy, and/or cold weather as worsening their joint pain, some people note their joint pain is worse with hot weather.

For example, in one study of older people with osteoarthritis, nearly 5% reported that hot weather influenced their joint pain. Experts suggest that when it comes to weather and joint pain, temperature changes and humidity influence how tissues (for example, tendons and ligaments) within a joint expand and contract—and this can then trigger pain.

Multiple Sclerosis

While once not recognized as a symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS), pain is now believed to play a big role in this chronic neurological disease. Types of pain include Lhermitte's sign, neuropathic pain in one's arms and/or legs, back pain, muscle spasms, and trigeminal neuralgia.

How does heat factor into the pain in MS? Well, anything that raises the body's temperature, including a hot summer day, can worsen MS symptoms. In fact, this phenomenon is so common that experts even have a name for it—called the Uhthoff sign. The good news is that once a person cools down, the symptoms go away.

Fibromyalgia

In a large internet study published in 2007, 80% of respondents with fibromyalgia reported weather changes as a factor perceived to worsen their symptoms, although the specific weather changes were not described.

The National Fibromyalgia Association supports the link between weather and fibromyalgia-related pain, although they state pain is generally worsened by cold, humid weather. So, like other rheumatological conditions, the cold and wet weather seems to be more of a culprit than hot and dry—although, summer days can be quite humid too, depending on where you live.

Overall, it's been reported that many people with fibromyalgia have "temperature sensitivity" or a worsening of their symptoms (for example, muscle pain or fatigue) with any extreme temperature fluctuations—hot or cold.

A study published in 2017 concluded no uniform effect of weather on patients with fibromyalgia and that it varies from person to person and by region.

Headaches and Migraines

Temperature changes are commonly cited as triggers of both migraine attacks and tension-type headaches. Even more than simple temperature fluctuations, the heat of a summer day can lead to dehydration, which can trigger a headache or migraine attack.

Is It Really the Temperature, Or Is It Your Mood?

Some experts believe that hot or cold weather can influence a person's mood, and then this can influence how that person perceives pain—a reasonable argument.

On the contrary, though, in the above study on osteoarthritis, even after controlling for factors like anxiety and depression, people who described themselves as weather-sensitive still experienced more joint pain than people who were not weather-sensitive. This hints that mood problems do not fully explain the link between joint pain and weather sensitivity.

Still, it makes sense that a temperature change can impact a person's emotional health, which can then impact how they perceive or interpret pain.

The big picture here is that it seems too commonly reported to dismiss a temperature change's influence on pain. So, while your worsening pain is real and not in your head, your emotional well-being likely plays a role, albeit it may be small.

Tidbits on Beating the Heat

To prevent the heat from aggravating your underlying pain, here are some tips on staying cool.

  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Choose shade over basking in the sun or indoors with an air-conditioner or fan.
  • Wear loose-fitted cotton, breathable clothing and wear a hat and sunglasses when outside.
  • Carry a water bottle around with you or a mini-fan to keep cool.
  • Apply a cold washcloth to your neck or run cold water over your wrists to quickly cool yourself down.

A Word From Verywell

While the science supporting a link between temperature changes and pain is not robust, it's still a commonly reported phenomenon throughout medical literature. With that, the biology behind the link is likely complex and maybe even unique for each person. In the meantime, follow your gut—if the heat worsens your pain, then minimize your exposure, as best as you can.

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Article Sources

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