COLD DISCOMFORT There are plenty of reasons why the weather might have a negative effect on how we feel physically.
It’s been noticeably colder of late, just to rub salt into the festering wounds of lockdowns, travel restrictions and general misery. You might think someone like me, who grew up in inland Australia where people pull on jumpers when the temperature drops below 20 degrees, might hate this weather. But you’d be wrong. I do know people like me who would hate this weather. But thankfully I’m not one of those people; somehow west of Ireland winters don’t really bother me.
What of the people that are bothered by weather like this? The folks who say they can feel the cold in their bones. Are they mad? Is that even possible? At first thought it seems a daft idea; one of those old fashioned notions that has been comprehensively debunked by science but remains in the popular consciousness. But is that actually the case?
We have thermoreceptors – nerve endings that sense temperature – in the skin, skeletal muscle, liver and hypothalamus in the brain. Interestingly, cold thermoreceptors are three-and-a-half times more common than heat receptors. So while they aren’t in the bones, we are noticeably more set up to be cold sensitive. This is likely an evolutionary protective mechanism; our ancestors were more likely to die of cold exposure than heat. Even in Australia, the hottest, driest continent on earth, you are 13 times more likely to die of hypothermia than heatstroke.
So we do feel cold more, just not necessarily in our bones. But winter in the west of Ireland can be wet too, and that may be relevant for some.
I’m sure you all know someone with arthritis. Have you ever heard them say they can feel the rain coming? Well it turns out that maybe they can.
Changes in atmospheric pressure, such as those associated with storm fronts, may cause certain tissues in the body to expand, putting more pressure on sensitised structures. Given that long-term pain due to arthritis involves a lot of sensitive structures, and small changes in pressure could irritate those structures more, it’s entirely plausible that those people feel more pain with changes in weather.
Weather changes can happen at any time though, not just winter, which suggests there are still more factors to consider.
Perhaps the two most important of those are human psychology and behaviour. By now, we all know that our physical and psychological health are intertwined. Consider the person whose mood is truly affected by winter weather; a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Their tolerance to physical discomfort is likely to be significantly lower as a result of their condition, making them feel more pain.
From a behavioural perspective, when the weather isn’t great, we’re more likely to stay inside. That’s perfectly understandable when you think of the evolutionary risks mentioned earlier; it’s not laziness, it’s hardwired self-preservation. The problem is that the resulting lack of movement may contribute to an increase of symptoms for those with musculoskeletal pain. Normally I’d say go to the gym and exercise inside instead, but that’s not so easy right now.
A final factor to consider is Vitamin D deficiency, which can be linked to muscle and joint pain, fatigue and depression. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin, because, although we can get a certain amount from diet and supplementation, our body manufactures most of what we need when exposed to sunlight. Obviously at this time of the year, our exposure to sunshine is lower and the risk of deficiency higher. The simplest solution? If the sun is shining, try to get out and soak up as much as you can.
There are then, plenty of reasons why the weather might have an effect on your physical symptoms. There’s also plenty of reasons why this winter, of all winters, that effect might seem worse than normal. Our best defence against poor health is, as always, to keep moving as much as possible. Rug up if you’re exercising outside, but exercise indoors if you have to. And let’s all pray to whomever we pray to for an early spring.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.