Why Does Back Pain Seem to Rise When Temperatures Drop?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but as of this blog’s publishing, we’ve still got almost two months of winter left in the United States. Unfortunately, the extreme cold of the winter can give rise to back pain episodes for many Americans. There are various reasons this may be the case – the initiation of a seasonal household chore such as shoveling snow, a lack of movement as the cooler weather begs you to stay indoors, or how your body physiologically reacts (tenser muscles) to the cooler temps. Understanding the most common reasons for winter-related back pain (and tips to avoid it) can help you stay as pain-free as until those first glimmers of spring make themselves known. 

If you live in an area of the country with seasonal snowfall, you may find yourself dedicating much more of your time to shoveling the snow that has suddenly piled itself up in your driveway. Continuous shoveling is a strenuous activity for muscles that may need to be more accustomed to this much movement. The repetitive bending, twisting, and turning can take your otherwise unprepared muscles by storm and may cause pain in your lower back.

Aside from purchasing a snowblower, stretching is the first and single best thing you can do to ensure your muscles are ready for the snow shoveling workout. The frigid temps have likely already worked their magic on stiffening up your muscles, so you’re a few steps behind the starting line, to begin with. Taking a few minutes to do a deep stretch of the muscles that support the lower back can increase your flexibility and decrease the chance of these muscles tightening up or giving out. If you’re like most people, the goal is to get through snow shoveling activities in the least amount of time physically possible. Take time, maintain your posture, and take frequent breaks to stretch and straighten your back every 15 minutes. However, rushing straight through with no breaks is a recipe for regret. Intermittent physical activity carries less risk of back strain than one straight burst of severe twisting and bending movements.

Additionally, and though it might not seem obvious, dressing in lots of layers can also give rise to back and neck problems. Though I am not advocating heading outside in shorts and a t-shirt, be mindful of the extra weight that outerwear forces your body to carry. Once safely indoors, remove the bulky garments that can weigh you down or inhibit your body’s natural range of motion. Commit to only wearing these items when necessary. I know pulling all the winter wear on and off is a hassle, but your spine will be better for the effort.

As the temperatures dip, it can feel easy to ditch the regular gym routine and instead find yourself staying home on the couch wrapped up in a blanket and binge-watching your favorite shows. This lack of regular exercise can directly contribute to low back pain, as the muscles that support the spine start to lose their strength. As difficult as it may seem, reserve at least 20 minutes daily to maintain an exercise regimen. Doing so will leave your body much less vulnerable to an attack of acute back pain.

A factor we cannot avoid is seasonal changes in the weather. Cold air causes a shift in barometric pressure, which can put extra pressure on all the body’s joints, creating stiffness. To help minimize the cold air impact, dress warmly with plenty of layers to keep your muscles from freezing and use a heating pad from time to time for specific problem areas. After strenuous activities such as snow shoveling, consider soaking sore muscles in a warm bath – treat it like a spa day for all that exercise!

Even though back pain is typical this time of year, getting through it with a healthy spine is possible. Following the above preventative tips will help you to avoid any significant episodes of acute back pain and will prepare you for the thawing of the spring season that is thankfully, for many, right around the corner!




Neel Anand MD