Experts don’t quite know why pain seems to flare up during humid, hotter months, yet for people with chronic pain conditions like arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and migraines, there’s no denying the impact high temperatures can have.
In this blog, I’ll share some tips for managing heat-related chronic pain flare ups.
NOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE
I never realized that my dislike of summer heat could be related to a silent chronic illness I wasn’t yet aware of. The pain, inflammation and fatigue started in my late teens. For years, I had chalked this heat intolerance up to living on a cold island and thinking I must be be built for the cold.
Summer soon became a time I would dread, hiding in the shade, sapped of energy with headaches and a gnawing, grinding pain in my legs and hands that kept me awake at night. My joints groaned, one shoe would wear down, I had constant insomnia and sleep problems, which played havoc with my mood and focus as well.
I discovered that swimming in cold water felt great, so I gravitated to beaches, ponds and water holes with falls. That was some reprieve, as well as peak sunny hours spent in my Nan’s cool front room with her.
For years, I was told these were simply “growing pains” and scolded for “wasting” my summers seeking shelter inside or in the shade. An active life of sports and adventuring also meant injuries and strains, so it was easy for me to brush off pain and discomfort.
“You’re way too young to be in pain. // There’s nothing wrong with you. // Stop being lazy. // You’re just looking for attention. // Toughen up!” I’d been admonished by skeptics, both in healthcare and all around me in my community. I learned to keep it to myself, accepting that maybe this really was just the way it was and that I needed to suck it up and not “complain.”
It would take far too long for anyone to make the connection that something was, indeed, wrong. Needless suffering comes from dismissing, invalidating and mocking people with non-visible disabilities. And yet it is the same story told by so many of us who live with chronic illness.
HERE COMES THE FLARE
On a recent holiday this Spring, an unseasonably early heat wave triggered the earliest and worst summer flare up I’ve had in years. And summertime heatwave season only exacerbates my condition. Hello climate change.
At times like these, I have to prepare myself mentally and be strategic about planning my day around fluctuating mobility, pain and energy levels. I wait until the evenings cool down or early mornings to live my life, when the pain allows it. I usually have to pare down my life only to the most important activities: health care, work and loved ones. The rest gets swallowed whole.
Chronic illness makes every day unpredictable, and summer can really crank up the challenge. I have long stopped planning anything important in the warmer months as a result.
STAYING COOL DURING A SUMMER FLARE UP
Here are 15 tips that I rotate through when trying to cope with a summertime heat-induced flare up. Please leave me your ideas and tips in the comments, chronic pain warriors!
- Avoid the sun
Rest in the shade as often as possible so you don’t drain your battery and make the pain and fatigue worse. If you’re light sensitive like I am, the shade will be your friend. Your skin will also thank you.
- Seek out air conditioning
At my flat, I sit right in front of it for maximum relief. I have multiple fans but they only push around the humid air, so I’m thankful to have an amazing air con (also popular with my pets)
- Stay hydrated
Not just a popular catch phrase, but excellent advice. Drink plenty of water, and reduce caffeine and alcohol (if you drink these), These only worsen dehydration and inflammation. Hydration really helps me cope.
- Plan outdoor exposure and errand running
Be strategic by reducing the time spent outdoors during peak hot times of the day. I plan according to the forecast’s humidex and temperatures. You can also learn planning and prevention measures for heat-related emergencies at the Canadian Red Cross.
- Wear breathable clothing and footwear
I find thin, loose, oversized clothing made of cotton and linen best. Polyester and other synthetic fibres only trap the heat against your body. Nope! Open and breathable shoes and sandals help, but I am barefoot most of the time during a summer flare
- Keep an eye on mental health and reach out for support
When struggling with disability and illness, it can be easier to keep things to yourself and suffer in silence. It’s so important to talk with someone you trust and to seek out counselling or other community supports so that you don’t feel even more alone that your disability already makes you feel. There is no shame in feeling overwhelmed, scared, worried or alienated. You matter. You’re not alone. Please take note of this mental health support, if you’re in Canada.
- Try acupuncture and other physical therapies
It provides me with a lot of relief, especially when combined with cool packs. I can usually buy a couple of almost-normal days after dry a visit to the amazing professionals at Knotical Chiropractic and Nova Physiotherapy.
- Apply cooling packs
These are constantly in rotation for me, applied with a thin cloth cover to whatever body part hurts or swells during heat-induced flares. A cool, damp cloth or cloth-wrapped frozen item from your freezer work well too! Pro tip: you can also get pet cooling mats to ensure your dog or cat doesn’t overheat. Heat can be deadly, even inside.
- Try self-misting / humidifying
I have a cool air humidifier that helps, and a good old fashioned spray bottle I use for misting my plants — and myself — during heat spells. I find it can revive you a little. I find a lot of relief in my cool mist humidifier, so much so that I run it year-round now.
- Exercise at cooler times of day
If you are not too painful, try to keep active in some way during a heat-related flare. I know this is not always possible when pain is at a level 10, fatigue sets in and balance is off. If you do find a safe, sensible way to move that doesn’t overexert or worsen your condition, try to do this during the coldest time of day.
- Conside cool water activities
You might try low-impact aqua sports like swimming or water aerobics. Even just resting and bobbing around can work wonders on the joints. Those with chlorine or chemical sensitivities could choose fresh or salt water. As much as I love thermal springs and hot tubs in colder seasons, these can sometimes flare you up worse if the heat is too intense for an already-inflamed body. Cool water plunges seem to help me. Nordic spas are one of my love languages!
- Take cool showers
A cool shower or bath can help if you don’t have access to / energy for / interest in water sports. Cold water over wrists and a cold cloth around the back of the neck also work well as a quick fix if painfully overheated.
- Apply aloe to cool the skin
Aloe vera isn’t just for after-sunburn care. It can also provide a moisturizing barrier that protects you against high heats.
- Take it easy to conserve energy and wellbeing
It’s difficult not to overdo it when having a summertime flare up of symptoms. Chores, errands and other activities may need to be reduced to avoid overexertion. Especially during painful or tiring warm weeks or months, conserving energy and not aggravating your condition is advisable. This can be stressful when you have much to do, but by overdoing it, we risk a longer flare and slower recovery period. Missing summer social events or not being able to host visitors during a flare up are awful, and something we have become sadly familiar with as people with disabilities.
- Eat more carefully (whatever that means for you)
I try to avoid foods that are linked to increased inflammation during summertime and during flare ups. I also find my appetite leaves me during humid and painful times alike. It’s a challenge, but I have found I feel better when I watch out for certain foods or make sure I’m eating and drinking enough to keep myself able to weather the summer flare up storm. Similarly, people with allergies, IBD, IBS, Crones and Colitis often find hot, humid periods to be painful and flaring for the bowels, gut, skin and overall body — a recipe for double misery when paired with a flare.
CARE TO SHARE?
Hopefully these summertime chronic pain coping tips will be helpful. I’m not a health professional, just a person who lives with disabilities trying to do what I can to cope and sharing with others in the community, who I know I could learn a lot from!
Heat-related pain flare ups are no joke. They greatly reduce our lives, enjoyment, wellbeing and opportunities. While we can’t control the weather or when a flare may arise, we keep trying different things to soothe the pain, discomfort, fatigue or whatever other symptoms visit us with extra intensity.
I’d love to learn what works for you! Pop me a note in the comments, if you’d like to exchange useful tips, warriors. Take good care!
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