How to deal with temperature sensitivity problems after a brain injury
Written by Michelle Munt October 2021
Here in the UK we are blessed with a pretty temperate climate. Yes it rains a lot and we do have hot days as well as conversely very cold ones, but compared to some places we don’t have a great deal of variation. However, atmospheric temperature is very important to brain injury survivors, even in Britain.
Our skin senses temperature and reports to the Hypothalamus, which is located at the base of the brain. Our brain then decides if we need to shiver to help raise our body temperature or sweat to cool us. If this region is damaged it can throw your body out and leave it guessing what it should do. Some 6 or 7 months after my brain injury I decided to tackle the weeds growing on my drive. Unfortunately, I had chosen a very hot and sunny day to do this and as my body struggled with temperature I was heading for trouble. For a long time I had been feeling severely cold, having to wear numerous layers to bed, so I was enjoying the hot weather. For me it felt just right and was a relief from being constantly frozen. However the problem was I didn’t have the usual warning from my skin that I needed to get out of the sun. It wasn’t until my neighbour commented that I looked hot that I finally went inside. My reflection showed I was burnt and I looked totally frazzled, and yet I still didn’t feel it. Plus I was dehydrated which is never good for anybody.
Even on an average day, brain injury survivors who have this issue have to be mindful of temperature. As our brains are not so good at regulating our temperature it can mean we don’t cope well with even minor changes in temperature. I don’t often feel extremely cold anymore, but I still find it difficult to find a comfortable temperature. For me, that means extra planning with what I wear. I have to wear layers so I can respond quickly by either putting something on or removing it depending on what my body thinks is happening. Plus, as a woman will longish hair I need to have a hair band in order to get my hair off my neck quickly if I start to overheat. It can be tempting to stand in front of an air conditioning unit to rapidly cool down, but this isn’t a good idea. The sudden change can put your body under too much stress, drying out your skin, mucus membrane and the eyes. Plus if you have too many rapid temperature changes it can lead to increased fatigue, which most of us fight with enough as it is. It’s better to put yourself in a shady and well airyated spot for a while first so your body has small step changes to deal with.
If you want some ideas on what can help a brain injury survivor handle a too warm environment here’s my list of things to consider:
Make sure you drink plenty to avoid dehydration – Don’t wait to get thirsty before you drink something. This is actually the first sign of dehydration so the trouble has already started. Make sure you take a bottle of water with you wherever you go. At home I pour out a pint glass at a time to remind myself to drink regularly. Aim for around 2 litres or 4 pints a day, or more if you have been exercising.
Sunglasses are a life saver when you’re outside – Warm weather often means bright sun. But also overcast days can cause intense hazy light which can be really uncomfortable. When you struggle to deal with temperature or recognise when you need to make changes to manage your temperature, the last thing you need is to add to your pain. Sunglasses will take the edge off the light and make it feel more pleasant for you.
If it’s a warm or hot day try to avoid going out between 11am and 3pm – I know it’s easier said than done, but if you can try to limit your time outside during these times you will be better do. It’s usually during this time that the sun is at its strongest and therefore it’s likely to be at its hottest. If you can do essential outdoors activities in the morning or late afternoon you’re going to cope better.
On sunny days a hat is really useful – If like me you have a scar on your head it can be more sensitive to the sun rays. Scar tissue doesn’t have the natural protection that the rest of our skin does. When I’m out in the sun it can make my scar really hurt. Even a scar which a several years old, as mine is, the discomfort that the sun’s rays cause won’t necessarily get any easier to deal with.
Dress cool with layers that you can add if necessary – I’ve already explained how layers are a must for me. Plus if you are going to be outside lighter colours will reflect the sun and will keep you more comfortable. Breathable fabric like cotton and linen also help regulate your temperate.
Look after your skin – When you’re outside on a sunny day putting on a sun protector factor on at least 15 is important. Make sure my facial day cream always has SPF15 so even on overcast days I have some protection. Remember to moisture the skin on your body too as maintaining its moisture levels means it be more comfortable and healthy.
I hope these tips will help other brain injury survivors go about their day with less temperature issues. But when you are finding it hard and everyone else around you is coping just fine, remember you’re not alone, we’re in this boat together.
"Michelle has written here about an example of just one of the many hidden every day difficulties people experience after brain injury. Some people find that using a reminder app helps to prompt them to hydrate regularly and that showering their hands and feet in cold water often helps them to cool down. It's also important to think about what you have planned and avoid heavier physical activities such as gardening or playing sports on really hot days wherever possible". Hayley Green, Occupational Therapist
A car accident in December 2014 left Michelle with a diffuse axonal brain injury which went undiagnosed for a year. It was accepted that she had a brain injury, but it wasn't recognised that it was a serious one and therefore had very little support. Michelle's injury meant she could not return to her job in recruitment and business development as she didn't know how long her recovery would take. This prompted her to start a blog bout brain injury @jumbledbrain.com so she could reach out to others. Michelle also runs a Facebook group of almost 6,000 members. The community share their experiences and tips with each other offering support wherever they can.