Fibromyalgia and Cold Weather: 5 Expert Tips on Managing Aches and Pains in the Cold

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified physician at Saba University School of Medicine

According to GSK 2020 Global Pain Index Report, one-third of the world’s population experience pain every day. If you have fibromyalgia, you may notice your bones and muscles start to hurt more in the cold weather. But why does that happen?

Understanding how cold weather affects your body is key to managing your fibromyalgia symptoms. Let’s find out what can cause flare-ups in winter and what triggers to look out for in cold weather.

How cold weather affects your body

Cold temperatures can make you more vulnerable to viruses and cause several health problems. For example, dry, cold air can irritate your airways and aggravate respiratory conditions, such as asthma.

In general, when the weather is bad, we tend to spend more time indoors and move less. This lack of physical activity can affect both your mood and overall health.

If you experience joint and muscle pain, cold weather can make your symptoms worse. Shifts in barometric pressure plus the lack of movement can increase joint swelling, leading to more joint stiffness and pain.

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The lack of sunlight that is common during colder months can also make you more tired. Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to worsening of muscle and joint pain. Although we can get some vitamin D from the diet, our body needs sunlight to produce enough of it to keep the bones, joints, and muscles healthy. So, if the sun isn’t shining, you may feel stiffer than usual.

Your brain may also not work as efficiently in cold weather. When your body temperature drops — even by a couple of degrees — you may experience slower reflexes, mental fog, and fatigue. These can also be signs of mild hypothermia, so pay close attention to how you feel, especially when spending a long time out in the cold.

Can cold weather make you tired?

Several factors can play a role in draining your energy during colder months. Low immune function, heavy meals, sedentary lifestyle, and holiday stress, to name a few. But the weather changes can also make you feel more lethargic.

A woman in bed feeling more tired in the winter

Sunlight, for example, is crucial for regulating your circadian rhythms. In colder months, when there’s less sunlight and days are shorter, your body produces too much melatonin, making you feel sleepy. The lack of sun exposure also affects our mood and can trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the so-called winter blues. This adds to your feeling low on energy.

In winter, you also experience drastic fluctuations in the temperature — coming from the freezing cold outdoors into a warm space with the heating turned up high. These temperature extremes can also make you feel sleepy and tired.

Muscle pain due to cold weather

Muscle pain is a common problem in cold weather. People with fibromyalgia and arthritis can be more susceptible to the changing weather. If you already experience muscle tightness, a drop in temperature and barometric pressure can often trigger more pain. It causes soft tissue to swell and put more pressure on your muscles, joints, and other tender areas, leading to more pain and stiffness.

Cold temperatures can cause muscle spasms and cramps, particularly when you’re exercising, but it’s still important to stay active when the cold creeps up — even more so. Make sure to warm up and stretch before your workout!

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Why do your bones hurt in the cold?

As previously mentioned, fluctuations in barometric pressure can trigger pain in people with fibromyalgia and arthritis. Additionally, when it’s cold, your body tends to redirect blood flow from your extremities, such as legs and hands, to keep your vital organs warm. So your knees, toes, and fingers may feel cold and become stiffer than usual. That’s why it’s key to dress for the weather — a pair of nice wooly socks and gloves don’t go amiss — and stay active. The heat created from muscle activity can prevent your legs and arms from getting cold.

Causes of fibromyalgia flare-ups in cold weather

Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain syndrome. It is more common among women and causes a variety of symptoms, such as:

  • Dull ache in the muscles and bones
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Poor sleep quality
  • “Fibro fog” characterized by cognitive and memory issues

You may experience mild aches or severe discomfort in various muscles and soft tissues around your body. Because its symptoms are varied, it can sometimes go undiagnosed. Unfortunately, doctors don’t know the exact causes of fibromyalgia yet. It is believed to be hereditary and can be induced by traumatic events, such as a severe illness or an accident.

People with fibromyalgia can be sensitive to temperature changes and experience a flare-up when it’s getting cold.

If cold weather makes your pain worse, it may feel as if it gets into your bones and makes everything tight and stiff. A possible reason for that, according to researchers, is a very high number of nerves in the circulatory system of people with fibromyalgia. Having these extra nerves can cause a more extreme reaction to cold or heat.

Other possible triggers of fibromyalgia symptoms that often go hand-in-hand with lower temperatures include:

  • Diet changes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor sleep
  • Emotional stress

Fibromyalgia affects everyone differently, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to managing its flares. Keeping track of your symptoms, activity, weather changes, and diet can help identify and avoid your triggers.

5 Tips on managing fibromyalgia and cold weather

Since there is no effective treatment for fibromyalgia yet, it’s best to take steps to prevent flare-ups. Let’s find out what can help you keep your symptoms under control.

1. Stay warm

Wear several layers of warm clothes you can take off when you’re too hot, and put some hand warmers in your gloves when going outside. They help maintain proper blood circulation and prevent your fingers from getting stiff.

A woman under a blanket with muscle pain due to cold weather

Baths are also an excellent way to warm up, helping you relax and release muscle tension. Add a couple of drops of soothing essential oils to your bath for maximum relaxation.

2. Keep moving

Staying active can prevent your fibromyalgia pain from getting worse. A simple 30-minute walk can do the trick of keeping your joints healthy. If you feel like working out, choose exercises that strengthen your muscles and bones. They can help reduce joint pain and improve your mobility and endurance.

Start slow and gradually build up the intensity and duration of your workout. Warm up with stretching exercises and a bit of fast walking.

3. Eat a balanced diet

A balanced diet of lean protein, fats, and fiber can reduce joint pain and support your overall health. Avoid excess sugar and processed foods that cause inflammation. Eating well can also help maintain a healthy weight and put less pressure on your joints — too much pressure can cause strain and discomfort.

4. Get enough vitamin D

Vitamin D is crucial for healthy bones and joints. When you don’t get enough of it in colder months, you can notice your joint and muscle pain get worse.

Your body synthesizes vitamin D from sun exposure.

In winter we usually get less sunlight, so your vitamin D level can be lower. Some foods, such as liver, oily fish, and eggs also contain small quantities of vitamin D. But you’re unlikely to get enough of it from diet alone. Talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D supplements.

5. Try massage therapy

Massage is one of the best options for managing fibromyalgia. It can release muscle tension, reduce pain, and lower stress. Some massage styles can be very effective at managing symptoms of fibromyalgia:

  • Deep tissue massage helps release chronic muscle tension and targets trigger points.
  • Lymphatic drainage massage improves circulation and reduces swelling and muscle pain.
  • Myofascial release massage releases muscle pain and tightness and improves blood flow.

Talk to your doctor before starting any new treatments. They may recommend specific physiotherapy to relieve your symptoms.

Final thoughts

Doctors don’t know the exact triggers of fibromyalgia yet, but some people can be sensitive to weather changes and experience flare-ups in cold temperatures. Keeping a fibromyalgia diary can help you identify your triggers.

Certain lifestyle changes can help reduce fibromyalgia symptoms. Staying active and keeping warm, for example, are some of the most effective ways to prevent fibromyalgia flare-ups in cold weather. Regular exercise may prevent your muscle and joint pain from getting worse, but make sure to warm up beforehand.

January 23, 2023