A version of this blog first appeared on the My Life My Migraine Patreon page.
Varying dramatic temperatures are a bit like walking into Katy Perry’s Hot ‘N Cold song, except the temperamental person in reference is actually my body’s response to the elements.
Chronic illness of all sorts has a commonality in regards to the world around us, particularly weather systems. We feel when a storm is coming in, or the pressure is dropping, and for many of us if it gets too hot or too cold our symptoms flare.
For me, it’s a balancing act between migraine and other undiagnosed pains and body quirks, that stand out most when the temperatures fall below 50°.
Although in past years – especially notable when living in Wisconsin in college – my head pain was more severe and less predictable during the fall to winter season change. This past November we had an arctic blast that made its way into the Carolinas. As excited as I was to get to wear some long forgotten sweaters I was met with a much different experience than before:
For almost an entire week I laid on my couch bundled up in blankets realizing how much harder it was to use my limbs. For a bit I thought maybe it was my carpal tunnel flaring up and this was before I had any noticeable pain in my right hand. It was just a weakness – stronger in the left hand and arm.
The cold made life a whole lot harder to work through. I couldn’t cook things that needed to be chopped or required regular stirring. Typing for long periods was hard. Using my phone was hard.
Think of it like this: make a fist with one of your hands and squeeze gently. Feel all of the muscles tensing up and the strength of your grip. Now imagine that you can close your hand in the same fashion but the feeling of being able to grip something is gone. That’s how the cold made my hands feel.
The most consistent suggestion I get is to just turn on the heat, but for me the blowing air and the distinctive smell of “heat” both are triggers. Now add that with my difficulties regulating temperature and the sudden change from cold air to hot air makes me light headed. (Thanks dysautonomia.)
One myth I’d like to bust: Changing the internal temperature doesn’t impact my body’s reaction to the weather and pressures happening outside. So although a heating pad may help me stay warmer and temporarily soothe some pain, it doesn’t counteract the larger weather system.
Obviously heat causes problems too, and the sweltering, humid Carolina summers present their own challenges.
It’s a toss up of managing heat for 10 months or managing cold for 10 months and managing the symptoms that come with hot or cold weather.
Woes of hot (Southern) weather:
- Thunderstorms daily. The hot humid weather makes it so that there’s always the afternoon thunderstorm looming. That’s a daily shift in barometric pressure giving me some daily head pain and drowsiness. The solution: late afternoon naps seem to address the drowsiness and the pain settles after the storm moves through.
- Inability to regulate temperature. When it’s 100° (even 90° and humid) my body feels it. Yours probably does too. My medicine prevents me from sweating. It’s really hard to stay properly hydrated. The heat tends to suppress my appetite. The solution: Schedule more meals and eat foods that have high water content like fruits and cucumbers so hydration isn’t just coming from drinking water. Being able to eat and cool my body down helps combat the heat.
- Stomach problems. Perhaps connected to the previous one, when it’s hotter than hell my stomach and digestive track tend to be unhappy.
- Hurricanes. If you’re looking for a super painful example of shifting barometric pressure, a hurricane mixed with late August and September heat is it. My migraines begin to feel the effects days before the storm arrives, and due to the nature of hurricanes, my migraines can make staying put and hunkering down more difficult. If the power goes out all of my temperature regulation tools are gone and I’m bound to end up severely dehydrated. The solution: Evacuate before orders are given. I may not be able to avoid the pain from the storm, but avoiding the power outages that can last for days is doable.
Basically, the summer’s sweltering heat slows me down a lot and I have to work a lot harder to be hydrated and regulate my body systems to keep symptoms at bay.
Woes of cold (Upper Midwest) weather:
- Windier Weather. Wind is a huge signal of atmospheric pressure changes. When it’s windy, even when it’s a beautiful sunny day, I’m often in more severe head pain. And when it’s cold, it’s windy more often than not. There is no solution because I can’t find the off switch for the sky.
- Inability to regulate temperature. This one is also in hot weather, but it means my hands and feet are often ice cold, even when it’s warmer outside. But when it’s cold I go weeks on end without knowing what my toes feel like because there’s just no way to warm them up constantly. The Solution: When I’m sitting I have an electric blanket for my toes and at night I have an electric blanket.
- Widespread pain. Beyond the nerve pain and the head pain my whole body hurts and feels weak, my hands get the worst of it. You hear about this a lot with older populations or people with fibromyalgia where their joints hurt worse in the winter. I know a lot of people who are bedbound most of the winter months. Thankfully I’m not there yet. There is no solution to this because I nor doctors understand the mechanisms that cause cold related pain flares.
- My heater intolerance. I don’t get it but I know it’s common that having the heat turned on or a space heater causes migraines to be worse. Therefore, I use them minimally if at all.
- Foods that warm you up make me sick. Think about your favorite soups or dishes that are comfort foods that are nice and warm. Now get rid of anything with cream, milk, potatoes, and butter. Now limit anything with beef, beans, pasta, and bread to only once a day and definitely not every day. Essentially all of the good cold weather meals interfere with managing my abdominal pain, which means that I can’t use food to combat cold weather like I use food to combat warm weather.
- Cold Dry Air. If you live up north, your air conditioner may have an “April Air” setting that helps restore some humidity to the winter air. The dry air has a negative impact on my sinuses, which in turn negatively impact my sleep quality and increases migraines. The solution: An in home humidifier helps keep the air at the proper humidity level all year round.
Both of these lists probably seem rather bleh. They are, I assure you there is no “perfect” in this scenario.
With hot weather, much of the struggles comes with the extreme temperatures above 90° that last for 3 consistent months and then pop in occasionally. This is a stark contrast to what I’ve experienced here in Wisconsin, partially because the cold weather struggles begin once it’s below 50° which makes up a much longer percentage of the year.
And that’s really the biggest difference. Especially in the context of my recent move back north.
In the heat, I’m uncomfortable, but in the cold I’m in pain.
If you too experience flares due to extreme temperatures drop a comment and share what solutions you’ve found or areas where nothing seems to help!
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