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Winter cold makes muscles work harder

GRAND FORKS — Among the host of winter’s challenges, muscle pain caused by the cold can aggravate people this time of year, according to Heidi Panos, physical therapist with Altru Health System in Grand Forks. 

Why do our muscles hurt more in cold weather?

The cold causes muscles to lose more heat due, in part, to reduced blood flow, Panos said. 

They “tighten up with frigid temperatures and become more susceptible to injury,” she said. Physical tasks “become more difficult to perform.”  

In cold weather, muscles contract, or become shorter in length, she said. “With a strained muscle — what is known as a ‘pulled muscle’ — the short muscle is lengthened beyond the comfort zone through exercise — and even normal activity.”

“It could be as simple as bending and picking up an object or falling and slipping on ice,” she said. “It may occur when you’re reaching overhead or walking up stairs — typical activity of daily living.”

Such activity can cause “tiny tears in muscle tissue which result in inflammation, swelling and redness.”

From the affected area, the brain receives signals that you experience as pain, she said. 

Ligaments and tendons, which connect muscles to bones, can also be stretched and cause pain.

Joints get tighter and muscles can lose their range of motion, she said. If you are tense, nerves can be more easily pinched, but that is the result of more severe injury and is less common.

In cold weather, muscles have to work harder to complete the same tasks they complete easily in milder weather, she said. This causes more damage to the muscle tissue and can result in increased soreness.

“During winter, our bodies are experiencing more physical stress. Shoveling snow and slips or falls on ice are more common.”

Preventing pain, injury

Prevention is the key to staying healthy during the winter, she said.

Extend your warm-up time, especially when you’re going from indoors to outdoors, she said.

A good warm-up would include stretching, she said. “Also, to get the blood circulating, do standing exercises, such as marching in place.”

If your warm-up takes you outdoors, try light cardio exercise, like brisk walking, which will raise your core temperature and ensure that oxygen and blood are flowing throughout your body, she said. 

A basic rule of thumb is that you should warm up for 10 minutes when the temperature is 35 to 45 degrees, she said. For each 10-degree temperature drop below 35, extend your warm-up by five minutes.

When heading outside, Panos recommends that people “dress in layers to keep muscles warm and to reduce the risk of injury.”

Always wear gloves, “no exposed skin,” she said. “And wear proper footwear that is supportive and has good grips” to reduce your chances of falling on ice.

Take shuffle steps, not lifting your feet, she said, and use sand, salt or kitty litter on steps and walkways near your home.

Snow-shoveling advice

When shoveling snow, Panos suggests “bending at your knees and pushing snow instead of lifting it,” she said. “It takes the pressure off the back.”

Another “back-saver” is the use of an ergonomically designed shovel that is lighter in weight and has a curved shaft, she said.

“It keeps a person in a neutral, upright posture.”

In winter, “sometimes people become more sedentary,” she said. “Staying active, especially in these colder months, is extremely important for cardiovascular fitness and strength.”

In extreme conditions, adopt “an indoor exercise plan” that may include exercising at home or a gym or walking at a mall, she said.

After exercising, “it’s good to have a proper cool-down,” she said.

This involves stretching the body’s tightest muscle groups, but also focusing on other areas like the back, arms and calves.

Unremitting pain

It’s normal to feel muscle soreness for a few days after exercise, especially if it’s a different type of activity or done at a more intense level than your body is used to, Panos said.

If you feel more sore in the winter after the same level of exercise than you do the rest of the year, it could be that your body needs a longer warm-up period.

Typically, muscle pain and soreness goes away within 48 to 72 hours, she said. “Depending on the degree of pain, people can use ice or heat” on an area that hurts.

“Usually within the first few days, ice is recommended, but not everyone responds to that.”

If the pain “stays at that level or increases longer than that time, you should see a health professional,” she said. “Formal therapy from a physical or occupational therapy might be needed.”

When treating muscle strains or acute soreness, therapists may use heat, cold or electrical stimulation, she said. They may also use manual therapy, a hands-on approach that works the soft tissues.

It can help with “joint mobilization to increase mobility if there’s a restriction.”

A therapist may also suggest a program of stretching and strengthening to ease pain and increase range of motion, she said.

Amber Greviskes, CNN Health, contributed to this article.