Neurology and Neurosurgery

Stay active and pain-free: how to manage discomfort for warm-weather fun

Two friends having fun and kayaking on the ocean.

07/05/2024

Don’t let arthritis, joint or spine pain stop you from enjoying summer activities. There are many pain management options so you can exercise, hit the beach and travel without pain.

 

By Safwan Zar, MD, Pain Medicine, Nuvance Health

 

Warm weather is perfect for outdoor activities, but for many, discomfort and pain from conditions like arthritis and back problems can make it challenging to enjoy these moments. Whether you are trying to exercise outside, sit comfortably on a picnic blanket or carry beach gear, managing pain is crucial to participating in summer fun fully.

 

Keep reading to understand common conditions that limit warm-weather activities. Then, get practical tips to manage discomfort, ensuring you can make the most of the sunny days.

 

Common arthritis, joint and back conditions can affect warm-weather activities

 

Arthritis

 

Arthritis can affect joints in the neck, back and knees and restrict activities despite the potential benefits of warm weather. The heat often helps ease arthritis symptoms. The warmth can increase blood flow and relax muscles, potentially reducing joint pain and stiffness. However, overexertion in warm weather can lead to flare-ups, so it’s important to balance activity with rest.

 

Joint pain and stiffness from arthritis can limit your range of motion, making it difficult to perform activities that involve bending or lifting. Stiffness from arthritis can also make prolonged standing uncomfortable. Even simple tasks like carrying gardening tools, standing up from a beach blanket or hiking can become challenging. Joint pain from arthritis in your knees and hips can particularly flare when kneeling in the garden or sitting for a road trip or plane travel.

 

Joint problems from overuse

 

In addition to arthritis, overuse can cause joint pain. Teenagers might experience joint pain in their shoulders from repetitive sports activities like swimming or throwing a baseball. Adults in occupations requiring repetitive motions like carpenters can also develop joint problems. Joint problems can cause pain and swelling and get in the way of kayaking or playing beach volleyball.

 

Herniated discs and spinal stenosis

 

Herniated discs and spinal stenosis are common back conditions and can also affect the neck. A herniated disc, also called a bulging disc or slipped disc, occurs when the cushiony part between each vertebra in your spine slips out of place. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of spaces within the spine, which can put pressure on the nerves. 

 

Both herniated discs and spinal stenosis can cause radiculopathy. Radiculopathy is nerve pain, which many of you may know as a pinched nerve or sciatica. They both can cause radiating pain in your arms or legs, numbness and weakness depending on the affected part of your spine.

 

Prolonged sitting and limited movement during travel can increase pressure on the spine and nerves and worsen symptoms. Frequently taking breaks to stretch and move around can help.

 

Carrying heavy beach bags or camping gear, especially on one shoulder, can trigger spine pain. Lighten your load and use a backpack to distribute the weight evenly.

 

Depending on the affected area in your spine, certain positions, like sitting in a beach chair or laying on a beach towel can aggravate symptoms. Identify what body positions worsen your symptoms to avoid them.

 

How to manage pain from arthritis, joints and back conditions

 

No one wants to be in pain! The reality is many of us have chronic pain, whether from injuries, overuse or age. Fortunately, many pain management methods exist, from medications and topical treatments to physical therapy and interventional procedures. Consult specialists who can offer tailored solutions to improve your quality of life. Exploring options with a pain management specialist can help you find the best approach to control your pain and stay active.

 

Non-medical pain management

 

Heat or ice: Heat can relax muscles and improve blood flow, reducing stiffness and pain. Ice can help reduce inflammation and numb sore areas, providing immediate relief. Use heat for chronic pain and stiffness, and ice for acute injuries or flare-ups.

 

Pain management patches: Over-the-counter (OTC) patches can relieve localized pain. These patches often contain medications like lidocaine or menthol, which can numb the pain and provide a cooling sensation.

 

OTC pain medications: NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help manage pain and reduce inflammation. Always follow the dosage instructions and consult your doctor if you have any underlying conditions.

 

 

Stretching: Regular stretching can improve flexibility and mobility, reducing pain. Focus on stretches that target the affected areas, such as hamstring stretches for lower back pain or shoulder stretches for shoulder pain.

 

Physical therapy: Tailored exercises from a physical therapist can strengthen muscles and alleviate pain. A physical therapist can also show you proper body mechanics to prevent further injury.

 

 

Specific relief positions: Certain positions can alleviate pain. For example, bending forward or backward can relieve nerve pressure in the spine, depending on where your pain is located. Understanding these techniques can provide immediate relief and improve mobility.

 

Interventional pain medicine for arthritis

 

Medial joint blocks are injections that block the nerves that cause pain in the affected joints. They can provide pain relief and improve mobility.

 

Radiofrequency ablation uses heat to destroy nerve fibers that carry pain signals, providing long-term relief for back pain caused by arthritis.

 

Steroid injections can reduce inflammation and joint pain, particularly in the knees. If you cannot have steroid injections, nerve blocks may help you.

 

Interventional pain medicine for peripheral joints (shoulders, hips and knees)

 

SPRINT® peripheral nerve stimulation is a temporary, drug-free, outpatient procedure that stimulates the affected area. This device helps reduce pain without the need for surgery or medication.

 

Regenerative therapy is a minimally invasive procedure that uses the body’s healing processes to repair joints. This can include treatments like stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma injections (PRP).

 

Interventional pain medicine for spine pain

 

An interventional pain management doctor can perform the following procedures to alleviate nerve pain like sciatica caused by a herniated disc or spinal stenosis and degenerative joint diseases, including osteoarthritis and spondylolisthesis.

 

Epidural steroid injections go directly into the epidural space in the spine and can reduce inflammation and pain.

 

Neuromodulator therapy using a spinal cord stimulator (SCS) involves implanting a device that sends electrical impulses to the spine, disrupting pain signals and providing relief.

 

Radiofrequency nerve ablation can help chronic lower back or neck pain by producing heat and disrupting nerve pain.

 

An endoscopic discectomy involves removing parts of a damaged disc that is causing nerve pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or legs.

 

 

Interventional pain medicine for tendon pain

 

PRP injections use a concentrated dose of your platelets to promote healing in damaged tendons, such as in your elbow, heel, knee, shoulder and wrist.

 

Ultrasound-guided tenotomy uses ultrasound to guide a needle to the damaged tendon, stimulating the body’s natural healing process.

 

 

Preventing and managing injuries during warm-weather activities

 

Injury prevention is key to enjoying the warm weather. Here are ways to lower your risk of injuries:

 

Conditioning: Gradually increase the intensity of activities to build strength and endurance. For example, start walking before progressing to running.

 

Warm-up and stretch: Prepare your body before engaging in physical activities. A good warm-up increases blood flow and reduces the risk of injury.

 

Body mechanics: Lift with your legs, not your back, and use proper ergonomics. Learn safe lifting techniques and practice good posture to prevent injuries.

 

Proper footwear: Wear shoes that support your activities to prevent injuries. Choose sneakers with good arch support for physical activities and avoid sandals that can cause slips and falls.

 

Plan: Take OTC pain medication before long trips and as directed by your doctor to stop the pain before it gets unbearable. Avoid overloading bags by packing light. Use a backpack at the beach rather than a shoulder bag or pull your items in a wagon. When traveling, use luggage with wheels to reduce strain on your back. Bring back or knee braces or supports like pillows, and plan breaks in advance.

 

Understanding pain to get relief quickly

 

There are two types of pain, acute and chronic. Understanding and recognizing the pain can help you effectively treat it quickly.

 

Acute pain happens from a sudden injury, like throwing your back out or spraining your ankle. Address acute pain immediately with rest, ice and OTC pain relief. Acute pain should go away when the injury has healed. It is important to take acute pain seriously to avoid further injury or chronic pain.

 

Chronic pain is persistent pain that lasts for three months or longer. Seek medical advice and explore long-term pain management options. Chronic pain can significantly impact your quality of life, so finding effective treatment is crucial.

 

Related content: Acute vs. chronic pain video

 

The bottom line: Living with arthritis and spine conditions does not mean you have to give up on warm-weather activities! By understanding common conditions and using effective pain management strategies, you can enjoy a good quality of life with optimal physical functioning. Stay active, take preventive measures and explore pain management options to make the most of the sunny days ahead.