Surviving winter pain flares when you’re poor

Winter is coming. But I refuse to go down without a fight.
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A coloured drawing of a woman in a black dress with bright red fiery wings standing on a globe, stooping to touch the top of the northern hemisphere. The image is called 'Pain Wings'

Image: ‘Pain Wings’ by Kat Spence

As autumn approaches, my body lets me know that darker days are coming. Various health issues mean that harvest time usually marks a physical decline – and it’s easy for that to lead to depression, particularly if I’m bedbound by pain for weeks on end.

However, I refuse to go down without a fight. These are some of the tricks I use to make the colder months less painful.

Chronic pain hack #1: heat

Getting cold makes my muscles seize up and it can be hard to get warm once chilled. To counter this, I have a heap of clothes designed to keep me warm no matter how cold it gets (and how little I can afford to have the heating on). Cashmere and silk pyjamas or thermal-wear may sound indulgent, but a keen eye on eBay and a flexible approach to colour can mean you can get these for under £10.

I have blankets and throws of various sizes, along with cushions and pillows galore. Making myself a nest can turn a cold day into a comforting one.

Cardigans, hot water bottles, heat pads (which the environmentalist in me balks at but which can be essential if muscles spasm while out and about), heating balms (I like Tiger Balm and aromatherapy oil blends) and baths or showers (if accessible) all help keep my body warm. I also have a great selection of blankets and throws of various sizes, along with cushions and pillows galore. Making myself a nest can turn a cold day into a comforting one.

A lavender pillow may also help, if you can make one and have a microwave. Use an old T-shirt or other item of clothing plus lavender from a friend’s garden, and rice, or flax seed if you can afford it: 1/3 lavender, 2/3 rice. Add rosemary if brain fog is an issue – or you just like the smell. Stitch it together and heat for 90 seconds in the microwave. If you’re rubbish at sewing, use a long sock to make a neck pillow with minimal stitching required.

Chronic pain hack #2: water

Baths are an essential for me as I pass out in the shower. I limit these due to money and thoughts for the environment (but I’m also not ashamed to ask friends who are richer than me if I can have baths at their houses when I need them). I use the water on the garden and house plants afterwards so it’s not wasted. I find Dead Sea Salts help, as does normal salt (though it stings if you shave in the bath and use too much). Don’t use salty water on plants afterwards, though. Use aromatherapy oils (or nothing) in your bath instead if you want to water your plants.

Some areas in the UK offer leisure passes through the NHS to allow you to go swimming at a discount. Others have discounts for people with disabilities. Even if I can’t swim very well, just floating in a warm pool can make a huge difference to the way I feel. Static exercise in the swimming pool can be a great way to get my limbs moving without too much strain, too.

Chronic pain hack #3: comfort food

I don’t mean junk food – though biscuits and tea can be an essential when I need food to take my meds but don’t have an appetite or am struggling to swallow. However, taking time to eat comforting stews, soups or even just porridge can help ensure my body can fight the pain as much as possible.

I am drawn to stews and slow-roasted one-pot meals, jacket potatoes and swede mash, rich tomato sauces with melting cheese, celeriac soup, porridge with honey, home-baked bread, banana loaf and foraged crumbles loaded with nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. Hot chocolate made 50/50 with almond and Jersey milk and Green and Black’s hot chocolate – perhaps with brandy – is the indulgent cherry on top.

I figure that nature has been around lots longer than I have, so eating seasonal produce will probably be good for me as well as the planet. At this time of year in the UK, there’s an abundance of purple fruit: blackberries, plums and elderberries. There are also red tomatoes, chillis, rosehips and apples and yellow corn, peppers and plums.

Eating warm, rich and fiery-coloured fruit and veg heats me from the inside. Adding chilli to food also helps – a paprika-heavy stroganoff or slow cooked Puttanesca sauce.

As well as feeling warming, all these fruit and veg dishes are loaded with vitamins to boost immunity. And better immunity means aches and pains are less likely to be worsened by a cold (hot chocolate with brandy makes you less likely to care about it).

Eating warm, rich and fiery-coloured fruit and veg heats me from the inside. Adding chilli to food also helps – a paprika-heavy stroganoff or slow cooked Puttanesca sauce.

I’ll batch cook when able, to eat when I’m unable to cook. Miso soup is a great option for days when I’m flaring particularly badly – and can act as an appetite stimulant for me too, which is useful when eating is challenging. Bananas and tinned custard are soothing for me – and bananas can be a great ‘instant food’ option to keep energy reserves up.

Don’t be afraid to tell friends if cooking is hard, too. You may find them turning up with food for you (I am lucky enough to have kind friends who have done this and it’s always appreciated, even though I felt ashamed admitting  I was struggling at first).

Chronic pain hack #4: drawing and crafting

A hand drawn depiction of someone's chronic pain experiencesSince I became ill, my crafting talents have improved no end (though they’re still more ‘enthusiastic five year old’ than ‘artisan craftsperson’). Decoupage (decorating things with pictures cut from magazines and damaged old books), zentangles (a method of controlled drawing that can help anyone create lovely art) and making dolls from old tights are among my favourite crafts – and can all be done in bed. I will often cut things out for decoupage when well so I just need to stick them down if my hands struggle with more dexterous control. Painting, drawing and sewing can all be great ways to fight boredom and distract from pain. What do you love? Do more of it.

Chronic pain hack #5: writing

Journaling, poetry, blogging and writing in all its forms are lifesavers for me. Even if you don’t love writing, it can be cathartic to get your story out – if just on to a page for your eyes only. I love the book Writing As A Way Of Healing* by Louise DeSalvo and have recommended it to many friends. It helps guide you through the journaling process in the most beneficial way, so you don’t end up writing yourself into a worse state than you were by reinforcing difficult feelings, but can still process things you need to. Poetry and blogging can help you connect with others – and articulate your feelings and needs. Words have power, so I use them.

Chronic pain hack #6: reading

Being stuck in bed is boring. Being able to stay in bed and read brilliant books is wonderful (pain aside). I frame flare days as reading days, and have a stack of books ranging from short and simple illustrated books (eg. Art Matters* by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell) to children’s books for brain fog days (I recently read How To Help A Hedgehog And Protect A Polar Bear* by Jess French and loved it, even though it’s aimed at kids) to more complex books I can dip into without having to focus on too many pages at once (Pre-Raphaelite Girl Gang* by Kirsty Stonell Walker is a current favourite). I also love audio books and am hoping to get a subscription to Audible this year, to allow me to listen to lots of them on days when holding a book hurts too much.

Chronic pain hack #7: getting outside

While I am not always able, getting outside daily is a huge health booster. While my body is still functioning, I exercise out as much as I can, so I’m as fit as I can be before my joints flare up, to make it easier to cope.

Getting outside, even for 10 minutes, helps me fight the isolation and disconnect that can come from long-term illness. Even if you can only just get out of your front door, you can find a bird or bug to watch, or a cloud to admire.

If not, exercise in bed can help. I use Pilates – and dancing to music I love, if my body will let me.

Chronic pain hack #8: aromatherapy

I know there’s not a lot of science supporting most oils, but I find them personally beneficial. Neroli and vanilla are soothing, lavender and rosemary uplifting, wintergreen great for muscle aches.

I use oils in burners, on my pillow, as massage blends (massage being another lifesaver) and in home-made toiletries, and make natural incense galore.

I only use high quality aromatherapy oils, and mix my own blends as I like to make them potent (though I go gently if making blends for other people as aromatherapy oils can be toxic). They are pricey but last for years, even with fairly frequent use.

Obvious as it may sound, I go by smell: if I am drawn to a particular oil, I figure it will probably do me good. It’s amazing how much preferences for smell can change from day to day – much as they do with food.

There is no cure-all

The fact is that managing chronic pain can take loads of effort, particularly when living on very little money. There is no cure-all, and everyone has different conditions, types of pain and life circumstances, so the things that work for me may not for you. If you have other tips, please share them in the comments so others may benefit from them.

For me, staying warm and cosy, with a cupboard full of home-made healthy comfort food, lovely aromatherapy oils and crafting I can do from bed, makes the colder weather a lot less painful.


All in-article images Emily Goss

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5 thoughts on “Surviving winter pain flares when you’re poor

  1. In the middle of winter you’ll find me inside dressed in two shirts, two sweaters, a long skirt, thick tights, wool socks, wool leg warmers, a cowl, a hat, a shawl, and fingerless gloves. Whatever works, right?

  2. Hi Emily, great article!
    Regarding audiobooks, you can download them from your local library for free! Check their website and it should link you to an app.

  3. A friend told me that wrist warmers can really help keep your hands warm. I thought I will give that a try, so cut the the foot part off some odd socks (why are there are always odd socks) and wore the ankle parts round each wrist. It works really well and leaves your hands free.

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