Many people complain about winter, but it can be a particularly challenging time for those who live with chronic conditions.
Chris Anderson is no stranger to bad winters. He lives in Minnesota — a state that gets, on average, between 35–70 inches of snow every year, depending on where you live.
In the winter, the average temperature can get as low as 18 to 8°F (-7 to -13°C).
And as someone living with multiple sclerosis (MS), this cold, frigid weather affects him more than most.
“The colder it gets, the shakier my legs get,” he says. “It makes it very difficult for me to move around in the colder months.”
After losing about 85 percent of his eyesight due to optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve, Anderson was first diagnosed with MS in September 2004. At the time, he was working as a middle school social studies’ teacher.
The extreme winter weather in his state exacerbates many of these symptoms. While Anderson says he normally uses ice cleats on his shoes, along with a walking stick with a metal tip to prevent falls, it hasn’t always helped. During an especially icy recent winter, Anderson slipped on the icy pavement, suffering a traumatic brain injury.
Heat — whether from the weather, exercise, or a hot shower — has been linked to blurred vision and a temporary worsening of symptoms in people with MS.
While heat sensitivity is more commonly reported, around 20 percent of people with MS experience worsening symptoms due to cold temperatures.
A drop in temperature can cause temporary issues with cognition, mobility, vision, and balance and may lead to numb, burning, or tingling sensations and tremors in the body’s extremities.
It’s believed that this happens because the cold affects the speed of messages traveling along nerves that are already damaged by the condition. But it’s also been suggested that cold sensitivity in MS could occur due to an MS lesion in the part of the brain that affects body temperature.
If you have MS and are affected by the cold weather, it’s important to prepare.
Anderson recommends finding someone to help with snow removal and investing in a remote starter for your car (and making sure it’s working at the start of winter).
“Since the cold weather greatly affects my MS, I need to have a warm car to walk into to prevent the leg shakiness from flaring up,” he says.
Other folks with MS focus on ensuring they can wear layers of clothes to help them regulate their body temperature. Thermal socks and underwear are great for that, as are electric blankets.
Betsy Mahowald, who also lives in Minnesota, says that every winter she stocks up on winter clothes, like boots, hats, mittens, sweaters, and anything with a hood.
In case of bad weather, she makes sure her home is stocked so she can avoid going outside in the worst weather.
“I make sure I have a decent supply of food in the pantry and freezer, such as meats or frozen soups, Kleenex, toilet paper, and basic cold and flu medications,” she says.
It’s also important to move around — even if indoors — because staying active keeps your body warm and helps minimize muscle stiffness.
Keeping your home warm, as best as possible, can also be helpful. Just be sure not to make the temperature too hot because heat may also exacerbate MS symptoms.
Mahowald says she also tries to schedule her annual neurologist visit in the fall, before the bad weather starts. Just one less trip she has to make outside in the cold.
Many people complain about winter, but it can be a particularly challenging time for those who live with chronic conditions or pain. It’s OK, even necessary, to ask for and accept support this time of year.
“There are a lot of things I need to do to prepare for winter,” says Anderson. “Admittedly, I cannot do all of them alone because of my MS.”
That’s why, he says, he’s grateful to the neighbors who help with snow removal or check in with him before or after a large storm.
If you can, line up your support system early. Know who will help you with snow or ice removal, or help you get to a doctor’s visit in the case of inclement weather.
And if you need emotional support or to talk with someone who understands firsthand what you’re going through, your Bezzy MS community is always here.
Article originally published December 17, 2020. Last medically reviewed December 17, 2020.
Updated November 10, 2022
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