The MS-UK Helpline shares some top tips for dealing with the wintry weather...
It feels a little that people with multiple sclerosis (MS) are stuck between a rock and hard place when it comes to the weather. After the extremely hot summer we’ve just experienced, many people had issues with the heat, and now winter is just around the corner bringing problems and anxieties of its own.
MS symptoms can be exacerbated as the temperature drops. It is not known exactly why the cold has a negative effect on people with MS symptoms. Some of the symptoms that can be exacerbated by the cold weather are:
- Increased stiffness and issues with spasticity
- Higher fatigue levels
- Increased and unpredictable bladder urgency
- A worsening of perceived pain
- Problems with sensory issues, particularly in the extremities
One additional issue may be the shorter days and not being exposed to as much direct sunlight, therefore not getting as much natural vitamin D as in summer months. The lack of sunlight, the shortening of the days and the difficulties getting out and about can also be contributing factors towards negative mental health with potentially worsening anxiety and depression.
Like many other aspects of living with MS, a little planning and forethought can go a long way when coping with activities in the winter.
- If your spasticity and stiffness increases in the cold, it is worth speaking to your MS team. There may be medications that you can take or if you are already using drugs the clinicians may suggest changes to dosage. There are also things you can do at home to help with stiffness, like stretching exercises, yoga or Pilates
- Wear layers. The thermal insulation of layers can make sure your core stays warm. We suggest choosing easy to remove clothes, as if you begin to overheated you can shed a layer or two.
- Make sure all your equipment and aids are well serviced and ready for the winter. Whether that is a car, a mobility scooter or walking aids, it is a good idea to get them checked out. This may involve lubricating moving parts, checking tyre pressures and ensuring brakes are up to the job. Some people even choose to switch their walking sticks over for Nordic walking poles or something similar with a wider ground surface area. You can also buy ‘ice tips’ to customise your existing walking aid
- Drink plenty of hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate or whichever is your drink of choice can help you stay warm from the inside, warming your core quickly. It can also help keep your fingers and hands warm whilst you cradle your favourite mug
- Keeping your hands and feet warm is really important. Some people with MS have sensory issues or also have a condition called Raynaud's phenomenon, in which the extremities (particularly the fingers and toes) are affected by the cold. Fingers and toes can become bluish looking and be very painful. It is a good idea to plan ahead and get some good thermal socks and gloves and consider keeping your warm socks on even whilst at home. You can also purchase hand warmers of various kinds from outdoor stores
- Consider increasing your uptake of vitamin D and make the most of what little sunshine there is. Try to go outside as close to midday as you can and expose as much of your skin as is possible (given the cold!) to the sun. Not only will this help your vitamin D levels but being outside and enjoying the autumnal colours or crisp Jack Frost touched plants will likely be good for your mental health too. If you feel you need to increase your Vitamin D supplements during the winter it is worth reading our Choices leaflet on the subject and speaking to your MS team
- Plan for adverse weather. If you have a care package you can speak with your care manager to ensure you have an understanding of any kind of contingencies or emergency plans that are in place in case of adverse weather conditions. It is a good idea to contact your local Adult Social Care department to find out if there are any special plans in place for extreme weather in your area. If you have a family carer or have caring responsibilities yourself, it would be a good idea to get an updated ‘carers emergency plan’ (usually part of a carers assessment)
- If you rely on meal on wheels or home delivered meals it is a good idea to do some contingency planning for the possibility that a delivery will not get through. It is always a good idea to have some tins of soup or other non-perishable foods in the cupboards. If you have room in your freezer it is worth making sure there are a few easy meals stored away in there too
- Be mindful of colds and your health. If you feel you are becoming poorly, speak to your pharmacist or GP as early intervention is best for managing health. Remember that you are entitled to the flu vaccine from the NHS. You can get this at your GP practice or your local pharmacist
- The UK government have produced a leaflet called ‘Keep warm, keep well’ specifically aimed at older and disabled people which is full of useful information about the winter fuel payment, the cold weather payment, the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), the warm home discount scheme and other sources of financial help. The Energy Saving Trust has good advice on how to lower your bills and make your property more energy efficient. They can also advise on grants and schemes available around the UK. They have a helpline you can call on 0300 123 1234
If you want to chat about any aspects of living with multiple sclerosis, the MS-UK Helpline team are here to help. Just call us on 0800 783 0518, email us or use our live web chat service to get in touch.