Arthritis in Autumn
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”—Albert Camus
It’s autumn, and it’s predictably gorgeous in the Northeast. Every fall the leaves on Brooklyn trees shift from forest green to burnished gold and tangerine, all the kiddos flood back to school, and I settle in for weeks of unapologetic pumpkin spice love.
It's not all pumpkin spice lattes
Unfortunately, fall also signals abrupt temperature changes—there have been 30-degree drops and days of icy rain. Cold temps are a drag for anyone, but they can leave "spoonies" wiped out as they ignite flares of inflammation, discomfort, and fatigue. I’ve spent a few October days couch-surfing, unable to complete everyday tasks like grocery shopping or sorting laundry. My flares are from fibromyalgia and ankylosing spondylitis (AS), but winter signals complications for most with chronic disease. I’ve only had my AS diagnosis a year, but I’m slowly gathering hacks and tips to ease my flares' worst symptoms.
My go-to cold-weather tips
Lather up with THC and/or CBD-infused ointments.
If you’re in a legal state, I urge you to try one of many brands of oils and creams using different parts of the cannabis plant. I have friends who create these handmade topicals, and by request, they can adjust the amount of cannabis, cayenne for warming, and other ingredients to suit each customer. The cayenne and arnica in these products produce a soothing, warm sensation that heats my stiff hands on cold, rainy days. And since these ointments are made with natural ingredients, they also smell fantastic. I get the relief of a store-bought rub without the aggressive smell. I apply directly on my hands, slowly, so the application becomes a massage and part of my self-soothing.
Go hipster with fingerless gloves.
Oh, the irony! The gloves I dismissed all my life as a hipster fashion staple are now indispensable. Once I add a soothing pain topical to my hands—particularly my swollen knuckles—I slip on a pair of gloves for as long as the heat is comfortable. Since they're fingerless, I’m still able to type and hold a mug--a test of any product! Plus, they’re cheap: I found two pairs online for $7.
Become a human burrito with extra-large heating pads.
Size matters for this one. I have an XL, and it completely covers my lap. It’s also long enough to rest on both my hip and lower back. Electric blankets are wonderful, but if you’re on a budget, a longer, wider heating pad may do the trick. I own another heating pad but only use the large one; I love being wrapped in heat.
Have a seat with a stepladder or chair.
One day recently I had excruciating pain while doing dishes. It had been raining all week, which triggered my fibro pain. Each day the pain was a little higher, a little more intense. Feeling frustrated and beaten, I sank on my mom's old stepladder, fighting tears. I realized that I could still reach the sink and stove and remain seated. Only when I sat properly on a chair did I recognize how terrible my posture had been. A stepladder isn't required, but whatever you choose, make sure your back is properly supported.
Get hot with baking.
What I bake isn't important--it's the process of baking that matters. Baking forces me to pay attention to the task at hand, which helps distract me on a high pain day. Following a recipe feels methodical and anchoring. Stirring a bowl comforts my soul: a circle is greatly symbolic, and the action allows me a meditative kind of energy. The oven makes my small digs and bones feel toasty, and what's better aromatherapy than cake?
Cuddle up with a furry monster.
This one requires commitment, so I’ll only speak to my own experience. I fostered an eight-month-old rescue cat named Harry. Four years later and we’re like beans and rice: always together. I never imagined having a cat but I kept an open mind. Four years later, and he's an essential and important part of my life. The isolation of chronic pain is enormous. The guilt and shame can be substantial. Add in sunsets at 5 pm and 40-degree nights, and it can feel very solitary.
Harry stays by my side and seems attuned with my bad days, offering extra attention. When he sits on my lap--a gift after years of patience--his warmth is therapeutic on my legs. Running my fingers through his fur has become its own therapy, his hair soft for sore fingers. And it's well documented that a cat's purr can lower your blood pressure and promote healing. Try slowing down moments with your pet and be conscious of your body's movement when you interact. You may not like cats--they're as weird as you imagine. But Harry's just my speed. Consider visiting a shelter or walking a neighbor's dog for a temporary mood boost.
Preparation is everything
I can't stop the cold weather, but I can prepare myself. What do you do to prepare yourself for the Fall and Winter?
Other than back pain and fatigue, what is the most common symptom that AS patients experience?