By: Joseph Pergolizzi, MD
The summer, often synonymous with heat waves and humidity, can take a toll on anyone. However, for pain sufferers, especially those people dealing with arthritis and other conditions, heat can make the pain worse.
Hot weather by itself can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, and muscle cramps, even in people who do not normally have muscle pain. The science behind how extreme weather changes can affect a person’s pain levels is not completely clear. However, medical literature does report how heat can trigger painful symptoms, and documents that physicians have treated patients who suffer more painful symptoms in hot weather. While further study is needed to provide insight into how extreme heat affects pain, there are several strategies available to minimize pain brought on by the heat.
Although it’s not a popular idea in the midst of summer fun, limiting alcohol and caffeine proves to be effective. You want to focus on drinking lots of water and if you do partake in caffeine and alcoholic beverages, try alternating them between large glasses of water or a bottle of water.
Certain foods are high in water content, which make them prime choices for summer menus. In fact, according to the Institute of Medicine, about one-fifth of our water consumption comes from foods – primarily fruits and veggies. So stock up on some of these summer food favorites including: watermelon, cucumbers, zucchini, celery, carrots, radishes, kiwi, peaches, cantaloupe, eggplant, tomatoes, strawberries, iceberg lettuce, pineapple, grapefruit, apples and even potatoes, which contain about 80% water and are a good source of potassium, a key mineral in maintaining healthy blood pressure.
Above all, do not wait till you get thirsty — continue to hydrate from morning to evening even if you don’t feel thirsty!
Anyone who must be outdoors should be mindful of avoiding the sun. People who suffer from headaches should avoid bright sunlight as much as possible. While just being out in the heat stresses your body, direct sunlight can cause sunburn and intensify pain.
Wear a hat, sunglasses and sit or walk in the shade whenever possible. The sun may feel wonderful and warm on your skin, but the heat is secretly drying it out. Even staying hydrated and slathering on lotion and creams will not put back all the moisture back that the sun sucks away from it so quickly. Time spent in the shade allows your skin to repair itself and helps to avoid sunburn, which can intensify any existing aches and pains.
Add Pain Cream to Sunscreen
We know the value of protecting the skin from the sun by using sunscreen, but adding some pain cream to that sunscreen will help protect you from painful muscle spasms, which can occur even if you have never had them before, and especially if the body gets too warm and can’t cool itself fast enough. An effective pain relief cream can work quicker than oral pain medications, usually in a few minutes, and you are able to target the pain relief better by putting the cream exactly where you are feeling the pain.
Another advantage of using a topical pain relief cream is that you can apply the cream more frequently than you can take an oral pain relief medication, where you would have to wait 6 to 8 hours between doses. Pills also take longer to absorb in the body versus putting the pain relief cream directly on the affected joints or muscles, providing a first-line, instant pain defense for the body. Pain creams that combine essential oxygenated oil with menthol provide fast, targeted relief. The combination of specially designed oils, means less menthol is used, making it less harsh, but just as effective for pain.
If you know you will be exposed to heat for more than an hour, a little preparation before you head out the door will go a long way. Choose to wear loose, breathable clothing. White or light-colored clothing will keep you cooler than dark clothing. Even still, UV light can penetrate through the micro holes in the weaves of regular clothes or can even travel directly through a light-colored shirt. If you can, wear UPF clothing (ultraviolet protection factor), which provides a much better block from the sun to give you the most comprehensive protection.
One of my favorite tools to beat the heat in the summer is a small portable fan that can provide instant relief. Some fans have clips on them, which come in handy on baby strollers, to give your little ones constant relief. Babies and young children are particularly at risk from heat and can become very ill in hot weather conditions.
Don’t go anywhere without a water bottle to stay hydrated. This goes for you, the children and even the dog! A water bottle mister is also handy to travel with on hot days. Any type of misting system works on the simple principle of evaporative cooling. When water evaporates from a liquid to a gas, it uses up energy, or heat, which leaves the area around it cooler. If you combine the cooling of a misting system with a little shade, you can really get comfortable outdoors on a hot day.
When to See a Doctor
Inflammation at the pain site or stiffness in the joint that will not allow you to move the joint would be a red flag and reasons to see a doctor for pain. Also, older and younger individuals who are often more susceptible to dehydration brought on by heat should see a doctor if it is not resolving quickly. Remember, medicine offers a lot of treatment options for pain, but not all options are suited for all people or all types of pain.