A common symptom of fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is cold sensitivity, which can make the winter months a real battle for us. With a little planning, though, you may be able to alleviate the worst of what cold weather means for your illness.
Getting chilled is a problem for a couple of reasons: first, we can have a really hard time warming up; second, it can lead to flares of other symptoms. We don't have treatments for our temperature-related problems, but we do have some idea why they may happen.
Why Do We Get So Cold?
Many researchers believe these illnesses involve something called dysautonomia, which means dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. That's what controls our homeostasis, keeping things like our heart rate, digestion, and body temperature within normal parameters.
In dysautonomia, these automatic functions can be askew, and in many of us with FMS and ME/CFS that's highly apparent in our body temperature.
When a healthy person's feet get cold, for example, the autonomic nervous system kicks into action, re-directing the flow of blood to warm up the area. As long as the situation isn't extreme, the body should be able to overcome the effect of the environment.
Because of dysautonomia, though, when someone with FMS or ME/CFS gets chilled feet, the body isn't able to adapt properly, so the feet stay cold. Even putting on thick socks may not help warm up the feet. The environment has a greater impact on the body.
In some people, this problem may be severe enough to warrant its own diagnosis – Raynaud's syndrome. You can learn more about that here:
When pain is directly related to being cold but no tissue damage is occurring, it's called thermal allodynia. When the cold acts as a trigger for widespread pain in areas that aren't cold, or triggers a cascade of other symptoms … well, that's just how FMS and ME/CFS tend to work.
Preventing Problems With Cold
So far, we don't have treatments aimed at regulating our temperature and alleviating cold-related symptoms, which means we need to find ways to manage these symptoms. The best way is to prevent yourself from getting overly cold.
Some ideas for heading off the chills include:
- Keeping your feet covered during cold weather
- Dressing warmly (however, dressing too warmly can trigger the symptom of heat sensitivity in some)
- Drinking hot beverages
- Eating hot foods like soup and oatmeal
- Bundling up before going out in the cold
- Warming up your car before you leave home, especially with a remote starter
- Keeping your environment warm
- Having things like blankets and slippers handy
No matter how careful you are, you're likely to get chilled from time to time. Once the cold sets in, it can be hard to shake.
When your body can't get itself warmed up, you may need to find an outside heat source, such as:
- A hot bath or shower
- Hot water bottle
- Heating products, such as battery-operated socks or mittens
- Electric blankets
- Heating pads or similar microwavable products
Be careful, though! You don't want to burn yourself or trigger heat-related symptoms by trying to warm up too fast, or with something that is too hot. Go slowly and carefully.