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Painful Winter – Why do we feel more pain during winter?

We seem to feel more pain during the winters. Those suffering from chronic pains like that of arthritis also experience longer pains during the rains and winter. I was avoiding my son’s Root canal surgery in winter, because I thought it would be very painful in the cold weather. But my father (a dentist) said surgeries are better in winter. This confused me. Surgeries are better in winter because, in simple terms, bleeding is less in low temperatures (ice is used to stop bleeding, as it constricts blood vessels) and wounds heal faster. But why do we feel more pain during winter?

This is one question that even medical scientists are still unable to answer properly. Is there some scientific cause and effect relation between pain and weather or is it just psychological? Several studies made in this field remain inconclusive.

Barometric Pressure
The result of studies made on this problem mostly concluded that the intensity of the feeling of pain is linked more to Barometric pressure than weather conditions. Barometric pressure is the pressure that air exerts in the environment around us. This pressure affects the expansion or contraction of the tissues, fluids, gases in our body. A drop in barometric pressure allows tissues in the body to expand to fill the space. The already inflamed tissues in case of arthritis may swell even more and cause increased pain. Low barometric pressure is generally associated with humid, damp and chilly conditions. (But meteorologists say that barometric pressure keeps changing, irrespective of hot or cold weather).

A study was performed in Japan in 2003 to study the link between barometric pressure, temperature and pain. In the study, rats were artificially given inflammation in their feet. Then some of the mice were placed in a chamber with low barometric pressure and low temperature, while others were kept in normal barometric pressure and temperature. The rats that were kept in lower barometric pressure and temperature showed signs of pain in the feet. This study concluded that when barometric pressure drops, tissues expand, aggravating the nerves around the inflamed joints, causing pain. The swelling irritates the nerves that sense the pain. It is likely that the joint membranes expand as the pressure drops. This in turn can cause increased pressure of the fluids that lubricate the joint. The change in pressure may cause a transient disequilibrium in body pressure to sensitize the nerve endings. The nerve endings on the joints have receptors that can sense pressure changes.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Unable to find any scientific cause of the increased sense of pain during winter, some scientists believe this to be more of a psychological thing. Weather conditions affect our mood. Cases of SAD or seasonal affective disorder are mostly reported during winters and rains and rarely during summers. SAD in common terms can be called mental depression caused by weather conditions. It occurs more during winters and rain due to lack of sunlight caused by clouds, fog etc. The cold and gloomy weather restricts outdoor activities which may cause depression. We tend to sense more pain when we are in an unhappy/sad mood. When we are happy and involved in activities, we feel less pain, or in other words, we are less bothered about pain.

Tightening of muscles
One possible cause can be sought from the fact about how heat reduces pain. It is a common home remedy to apply warmth or heat to soothe muscular pain. Muscular pain is caused by tightening of muscles. When heat is applied, the muscles loosen and pain is reduced. Heat increases blood flow which helps decrease the stiffness. The opposite may be a cause for more pain sensation during winter. It can be that the muscles of body parts exposed to cold are somewhat stiff and the blood vessels too are constricted due to the cold causing less blood flow. Therefore, any noxious external pressure in such condition may cause higher pain intensity, compared to warmer conditions.

It still remains to be unraveled whether ‘more pain in winter’ is just a myth or has some scientific cause-effect relationship.


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