Does Cold Weather Cause Back Pain?

Whether a cold front or rainstorm, have you ever felt like you could predict the weather based on how much your back or joints ache? While there is minimal evidence to support a correlation between weather and back pain, it’s hard to believe their connection is merely a coincidence.

Fortunately for those with chronic back pain or a back injury, Portland winters are relatively mild compared to other parts of the country–with an average of only three inches of snow per year. However, its annual rainfall does exceed the national average.

The often dark and damp climate has the potential to exasperate back pain (and joint pain) especially for those with conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. If you’ve ever wondered why your pain seems to be affected by the season, here are a few possible explanations:

  1. Barometric Pressure: There have been no scientific studies to prove a connection, but the anecdotal experience is far too widespread to ignore it. The most popular hypothesis regarding barometric pressure and back pain is that when the barometric pressure drops prior to a storm or when there is a drastic change in temperature, there is less gravity to prevent further swelling in joints. When your joints are already inflamed from an existing condition, previous surgery or injury, the swelling is compounded and results in increased pain.
  2. Vasoconstriction: When exposed to cold temperatures, the blood vessels in your extremities narrow to deliver extra blood to more vital areas such as your brain, heart, lungs and bowels–a process called vasoconstriction. This results in the tightening of your muscles, tendons and ligaments, which are all vital to supporting your spine. As these become stiff, it places extra strain on the back that may result in pain or discomfort.
  3. Lack of physical activity: Colder weather, frequent rain and shorter days may deter even those with the best intentions from getting enough physical activity on a regular basis. It may seem counterproductive, but outdoor activity and exercise actually help joint and back pain. Your muscles need continued exercise in order to fulfill their vital role of supporting the spine. Without it, you become more susceptible to injury. If the weather conditions aren’t ideal, find a way to stay active indoors.
  4. Abnormal physical activity: In the winter, you may find yourself doing back-intensive activities that you otherwise don’t perform or participate in during other times of the year such as raking leaves, chopping wood or learning to ski on vacation. When your back isn’t conditioned or strong enough to handle these activities, your risk of experiencing back pain increases. In 2017, more than 220,000 people were treated at hospitals, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms for injuries related to winter sports.
  5. Mind-body connection: Winter weather and less sunlight can take their toll both mentally and physically. The short dark days may increase your risk of experiencing the winter blues or developing seasonal affective disorder. There is a mind-body connection that can result in the physical manifestation of mental health symptoms. Seasonal depression can cause back pain, fatigue, increased perception of pain and decreased interest in daily physical activity.

Back pain doesn’t have to force you into hibernation this winter. Dress in layers to help keep your muscles warm especially when you’re outside. Swimming in an indoor heated pool, indoor aerobic exercise and walking are great activities you can do any time of year to improve back health. Whatever activity you choose, be sure to wear proper footwear. This can help reduce your risk of slips and falls–accidents that have the potential to result in a herniated disc or fractured vertebrae.

Contact Pacific Spine Specialists

If your back pain becomes more than you can manage on your own, call Pacific Spine Specialists at (503) 885-9391 or complete our new patient self-referral form. Our new patient coordinator will contact you to discuss your symptoms and schedule a consultation with Dr. Timothy Keenen–one of the region’s top orthopedic spine surgeons.

Dr. Keenen will evaluate the source of your spinal symptoms at our Oregon spine center through a carefully considered combination of history and physical examination combined with the appropriate diagnostic spine testing, and make recommendations about the best course of treatment so that you can get back to living the life you love with the ones you love.