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Cold Sensitivities and MS

By Matt Cavallo
Multiple sclerosis and heat intolerance have been well documented. That is because there is evidence going back to a study by Wilhelm Uhthoff in 1890 that linked vision loss in optic neuritis patients to a rise in temperature. Nearly 130 years after Uhthoff’s Phenomenon was discovered, managing heat with MS is still a challenge. Even with cooling vests and central air, the dog days of summer can still manage to zap us with heat-related pseudo-exacerbations.

With so much time, energy and dollars focused on managing heat, the question rarely discussed is how does the blistering cold of Old Man Winter affect people living with MS? 

The winter months are tough. The shorter days have us feeling more fatigued than usual. The dark days also interfere with our sleep schedule. It is dark when we go to bed and wake up. We miss the sun’s natural light dictating our sleep patterns. When you don’t get enough sleep that can cause any number of symptoms from depression and anxiety to lack of concentration and discontent. Most of these symptoms are related to the lack of light, but the cold plays a big role, as well.

Cold weather can have a dual response for people living with MS. It can make some symptoms better while making other symptoms worse. The most common problems that people living with MS experience in the winter are pain, mobility issues, depression and fatigue. As we discussed, fatigue and depression are more closely related to the low light whereas the pain and mobility issues are driven by the cold.

Mobility issues are related to stiffness which could be caused by spasticity. While experts are not 100 percent sure why this happens, it could be related to nerves that have been damaged by MS. There are also more slippery surfaces in the cold that can lead to increased risks of falls.

Pain also seems to hurt more in the cold. Again, this could be caused by nerves damaged by MS. If you experience the MS hug, it seems to squeeze tighter in the cold. Trigeminal neuralgia, numbness and tingling and other pain or numbing symptoms are also strengthened by the cold. Reynaud’s phenomenon, a less common symptom, can be triggered by the cold, too. Reynaud’s phenomenon is when the blood vessels, most commonly in the fingers and toes, narrow because of the cold. This can result in the area around your nails turning blue and can be very painful. 

If you suffer from cold-related MS symptoms, talk to your neurologist. Also, take steps to minimize the effect of the cold on your symptoms. If you experience pain because of the cold, make sure that in addition to wearing warm clothes you also keep your head, hands, and feet warm by wearing a hat, gloves, and an extra pair of socks. Also reduce your temperature variance. If your house or car is excessively hot, then it will be a bigger shock to your system when you step outside. You don’t want to go to extremes when it comes to temperature. Keep your insides warm by drinking warm drinks or eating soup. This is a good way to warm up from inside out. Also, make sure you check your vitamin D levels. With the cold temperatures and low light comes a lack of vitamin D. You should talk to your neurologist to see if you might benefit from a vitamin D supplement.

While there isn’t as much data on cold intolerance for MS as there is with heat, many of us do suffer from cold related symptoms. Make sure to dress warmer, keep consistent temperatures, eat soup and drink warm beverages and check your vitamin D to help manage these symptoms and overcome the cold.