For me, summer equals significantly more physical activity. I’m sure most people that live in an area that experiences winter will agree: when the weather is “nice” we do as much as possible to try to make up for being inside all winter. When you are chronically ill, however, more physical activity can also equal significantly more pain.
My fibromyalgia is the main cause of my pain in the winter, but I experience different pain in the summer. I haven’t been able to figure out how big a role each of my conditions plays into the summer pain, but I have developed a few tricks for dealing with it. My summer pain is extreme muscular fatigue, joint pain, and an all over bruised sensation; I do experience nerve pain, but it’s usually do to a pinched nerve thanks to my joint problems instead of due to my fibromyalgia. I also have to juggle my dysautonomia which includes a lot of problems with temperature regulation (leading to overheating) and swelling.
My top winter pain tips (here) include heating pads and curling up in blankets, etc. Obviously, that’s only going to make you even more miserable if it’s already 80°F (26.7°C) or hotter. So, what can you do in the summer to help with the pain?
Top 6 Summer Pain Tips
1 – Try to Avoid Overdoing It
I know, I know… This isn’t what you want to hear! I’m, honestly, horrendous at this myself. But this is the only way to ensure you won’t have a pain flare! (At least, not one from exertion; we all know our bodies like to act up randomly at times!)
How can you prevent overdoing it, but still have fun? Use your equipment and some ingenuity!
Does you knee swell up? Find a compression knee sleeve and wear it when you’re out and about to minimize swelling (same goes for other problem joints).
Do you easily overheat? Try to avoid going out in the middle of the day, when it will be the hottest, and stay in the shade as much as possible. Also, try to avoid asphalt and cement, as they radiate heat (grass and dirt are significantly cooler). If you do need to go outside, find a misting fan and use it!
Will you be miserable if you walk for more than 30 minutes at a time, but won’t have time to see everything if you take frequent breaks? See if the location you’re going to has wheelchairs you can borrow; many public areas, like museums and zoos, have rental chairs. Otherwise, look into getting an inexpensive wheelchair (you push yourself) or transport chair (someone has to push you). I have this transport chair, and I sit on a throw pillow to help my SI joints out – it has definitely paid for itself as I have been able to easily enjoy the San Diego Zoo, Denver Science Museum (a few times), and other places that would have been inaccessible without it!
Listen to your body, and slow down when it tells you to! If you’re going to an attraction, like a zoo, pick out what you absolutely must see first. Make a priorities list. Then, if your body tells you that you need to stop, you won’t push yourself too hard because you didn’t get to see your favorite animal. Also, take leisurely breaks throughout the day and your body will love you!
2 – Ice Packs for Injuries
You didn’t listen to tip 1, did you? That’s okay, I am not that great at listening to it either! And, sometimes, it can be surprisingly difficult to know if you’re close to overdoing it. Occasionally, my body just goes: “we’re okay, we’re okay, we’re okay… we’re NOT okay and we’re dying! repeat, NOT OKAY!” *cue the eyeroll* It’s terrible when you’re doing everything you can to try to listen and your body goes from being perfectly fine to suddenly being anything but fine in no time at all! Either way, pain happens.
Ice packs and I are generally not friends. Cold is extremely painful for me, and usually causes me fibro pain. However, when it’s 80°F (26.7°C) or hotter I can usually deal with them better! I still only use them for very specific problems.
Ice packs are fantastic if you got a specific injury, like a sprained ankle, or have painful swelling in an area. A lot of people use them to deal with heat intolerance, but I’ve found them to be too severe for me (I do have other tips below for heat intolerance though).
If something is swelling, ice will reduce the inflammation significantly. Cold shrinks the blood vessels and tissues, which will reduce the fluid in the area of inflammation. If you have strained your muscles, sprained a joint, or have blood pooling in your extremities, try using some ice packs! Putting ice or an ice pack over bug bites or poison plant irritations works wonders as well! The cold reduces the histamine activity in the area and helps reduce the itching and swelling.
To prevent injury to the skin from severe cold, place a towel between your skin and the ice pack (sometimes clothing will work as well – you just want thick fabric between the ice and your body).
You can make an ice pack (a hard one) by freezing water in a plastic baggy. There are also recipes online for soft ice packs that use rubbing alcohol and water in a plastic bag, just search for “DIY ice pack” and pick your favorite!
3 – Frozen Towels and Spoons
If you’re like me, sometimes you want to cool an area quickly, but an ice pack is more extreme than you would like (or too big). Frozen or refrigerated towels and spoons can be absolutely perfect for this!
To make a frozen towel: take a washcloth or hand towel (depending on desired size) and get it soaked with water, wring it out thoroughly so it’s not dripping anymore, fold it up and seal it in a plastic bag, pop it into the freezer for a few hours. That’s it! (For a cool towel that isn’t frozen, place the wet towel in the refrigerator instead. Just be sure to use a refrigerated towel in a few days or it may start to mildew.)
Frozen or refrigerated spoons: just take a metal spoon and place it into the freezer or fridge for a few hours.
To use the cold towel, I recommend leaving it in the baggy. If you take it out of the baggy, the water can get everywhere, even if you had wrung it out well before freezing. The cold towel will be soft, flexible, and will not be quite as cold as an ice pack! It will also warm up faster than ice, so it’s a great way to get a quick burst of cool without risking getting too cold. The cold towels can be used just like ice packs!
Cold spoons are great for pinpoint areas. If your eyes are bothering you, put two cold spoons (not the side that holds liquid, the smooth side) against your eyes for several minutes and they should relax. Spoons are perfect for bug bites! Just press the flat of the spoon on the bug bite for several minutes and the irritation should dramatically subside.
3 – Cold “Compress”
This is just a less-cold version of the cold towel. I use a cold compress on my feet at night because they overheat quickly and make me miserable in the summer! This is really easy to do and you can adjust it for the level of “cold” you prefer. Personally, I just take a washcloth, run it under cold tap water until it’s saturated, then wring it out and put it on my feet while I’m laying down!
You can use the cold compress anywhere, but it works particularly well on the feet and the back of the neck or forehead. Just be sure to move it periodically as it will heat up with body heat. (Plus, when you move it the water will evaporate and lead to more cooling.)
They sell cooling bandanas that work in much the same way as the cool compress. The cooling bandanas contain water absorbing beads, and you soak them in water and wear them around your neck (they tie on). These work better than a towel for long term use, as the beads stay wet for several hours (depending on the conditions). We would use them in the summer as kids, and they would help us stay cool for an entire festival! (If it starts to dry out, you can add more water at a drinking fountain or from a sink.)
These cold compress and cooling bandanas are two of my favorite ways to prevent pain from my heat intolerance. Yes, heat intolerance causes physical pain that can be quite severe.
4 – Rest and Elevate
If you have put yourself into a pain flare, this is the most essential step to recovery! REST! However, when it’s hot outside, you also should elevate your legs and feet a bit to aid in circulation.
Being flat on your back is the easiest way for your body to recover. Be sure to put a pillow under your knees to prevent strain on your lower back! If you’ve been having any problems with circulation, put a pillow under your feet as well to hold them a little higher than your heart. (I enjoy putting a cold compress on my feet if they’re particularly hot.)
If you can’t lie down completely, at least try to get into a lounge position. Sit down in a chair and put your feet up on something (a cooler, a short wall, a napping significant other, a friendly dog, a rock, etc) to get them level with your hips. Having your feet up will allow your heart to rest a little as it won’t have to pump as hard to maintain circulation in your feet. If there is nothing to put your feet on top of, try just sitting on the ground with your feet straight out in front of you (you can bend the knees a little if you’re not very flexible). Sitting on the ground is much easier with your back against something, so find a tree or a wall to lean against (or a supportive partner will work too).
It’s very difficult to rest in the harsh summer sun. Try to find some shade to relax in, or create your own shade! Move indoors where your body can cool down, or at least use a fan to help cool your body down. If you’re overheated, all your body will be focused on is cooling you down and it won’t be able to relax and recuperate.
5 – Hydrate
Drink plenty of fluids! Drink plain water, but be careful if you aren’t eating anything with it because you can actually develop water toxicity. Listen to your body, it will actually get harder to swallow if you are consuming too much water. A good guideline is that you need to drink 1/2 your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water each day (so if you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink about 75 ounces of water or just over 9 cups).
There is a lot of “don’t drink caffeine, it won’t hydrate you” stuff out there. My nutrition teacher in college actually said it’s very hard to not get hydrated from drinking caffeine. Even though caffeine is a dieuretic, you have to drink a lot of it for it to fully cancel out the water in the mixture. A good rule I’ve come across is that if you are drinking things with a very high caffeine level (coffee, black tea, etc), just count them as 1/2 the amount of fluid (an 8oz cup of coffee would count about 4oz towards your fluid intake). There are other downsides to drinking non-water drinks, such as excess sugar in your diet or questionable chemicals or additives, but they can still count towards your fluid intake! (I personally hate drinking water, so I usually drink non-water beverages for about 80% of my fluid intake.)
If you’re sweating a lot, you need to drink fluids that will replace the electrolytes in your body! (If you have heart problems, consult with your cardiologist before drinking electrolyte beverages as they can interfere with heart rhythm, blood pressure, or cardiac medications. You should consult with your physician if you have any pre-existing health conditions before altering your diet or what fluids your consume.) You can purchase electrolyte replacement beverages, such as Propel, Gatorade, and Powerade, at any grocery store. If you don’t want to purchase them, just be sure to consume something salty with your fluids: a glass of water and handful of chips will hydrate you better than the glass of water would on its own.
You can also get fluids and electrolytes from eating summer fruits and vegetables! Watermelon and strawberries have a fantastic balance of water and electrolytes which will hydrate you better than water alone! Just be careful, because if you eat too much of either fruit (you have to eat quite a bit if you’re an average adult) you can end up with diarrhea which will undo the hydrating effects. Enjoy your seasonal fruits and veggies and you’ll also be enjoying hydration!
Every cell in your body uses water to perform its function, which is why this is such a critical part of recovering and coping with a pain flare in the summer! (Well, it’s important year round, actually, but especially so in the summer.) Staying hydrated can help prevent pain flares from happening at all, but it will also help you recover much faster!
6 – Medicate and Delegate
There is no shame in taking medication when you need it! Be sure you consult with your doctor about what kinds of medications are safe for you to use!!! (For example, someone with ulcer problems in the GI tract should avoid NSAIDs because they can cause bleeding or worsening ulcers.)
My favorite medications to use in the summer are:
- Benadryl – I am severely allergic to all grasses and bug bites, so I spend most of the summer extremely itchy. Being itchy causes me to flare on it’s own, so keeping it under control with my daily antihistamines and Benadryl can markedly reduce my flare ups!
- Tylenol – Moving from hot to cold and vice versa can cause headaches in anyone, not to mention the headaches in people already prone to them! Tylenol is one of the only things that actually works on my headaches… if I take it early enough. If you know things will be bad, there’s no shame in taking it before it does! Prevention is your best friend!
- Aleve – This is an NSAID, so make sure you talk with a doctor before using it if you have any health conditions. I actually have several different types of anti-inflammatories I can take based on the type of pain I’m experiencing. Aleve is my go-to for my more mild body aches. I have an abortive NSAID for a specific type of headache that I can take when I need it. I also have a stronger NSAID that lasts for 24 hours that I can take if I’ve injured myself or my back plays up, but it works best taken for several days in a row and I cannot combine it with Aleve at all! Never combine NSAIDs unless directed to by your doctor (and always be sure they realize you’re combining them… always ask directly “can I take NSAID-1 with NSAID-2” because doctors are human and can forget things too).
- Tramadol – This is a prescription pain medication, and can only be obtained from a doctor. My fibromyalgia doctor (a rheumatologist) gave me a prescription for Tramadol to deal with my flares. I absolutely hate taking it, because it makes me a little loopy (not too bad) but triggers horrendous nausea and headaches when it wears off (unless I’m sleeping at the time). However, sometimes the pain is too bad to handle and I run out of options so I take it with a Zofran (prescription anti-nausea medication) and then I’m usually okay. When I can, I only take 1/2 of a Tramadol because an entire one can have too many side effects depending on the exact symptoms I’m dealing with that day. All of that being said, I am not ashamed to have this tool! I am not addicted, and honestly do not know how I would have survived some of my days without this tool in my toolbox. I am lucky that I only need it occasionally, but other people are lucky to have it available to them for 24/7 use as it’s the only way they can function on a daily basis. I often have to use this and my other tips to deal with a full pain flare.
Also, stop doing things! I guess that could have gone in the rest sections as well… However, delegation is your friend! If you have taken any medications, it’s usually best to rest completely and let them do their job. If you have children, and one of them is old enough to watch the others for a half hour, set up a system so you can say “rest time” and they will take over the parent duties while you take a brief rest. If they aren’t old enough to watch themselves, try setting up an “emergency play date” with a good friend or neighbor so you can send the kids over to their house when necessary. Text your significant other that you are in too much pain to make dinner so they know to pick up something or pick up ingredients to make something themselves, and so they don’t come home and then have to figure things out late! Leave the laundry for someone else to do, or for another day. Etc. It’s easier to delegate if you have systems in place. You could even jokingly make a code system (like, “code red” for migraines) and then you just have to say two words for people to pick up on what you need them to do!
Leave your favorite tips for summer pain flares in the comments below!