Do you know when it’s going to rain? Or even when the humidity is elevated? Feel the ache deep in your bones when the temperature drops? I do. Like most people, I’m certain weather changes impact my pain. Ask enough people who live with chronic pain if they think the weather has an effect on their symptoms, and you’ll get lots of nodding; some of it quite emphatic. Almost everyone understands the food they eat, how much they exercise, their exposure to sickness, how regularly they have physical exams at the doctor’s, and even genetics affect their health in a variety of ways, both positively as well as negatively. Now there is more research to support that even the weather can impact how people feel pain.
Anecdotally, doctors who treat people with pain issues, as well as researchers who study factors that affect arthritis symptoms, hear over and over that certain kinds of weather-namely, cold and rain, where there’s a drop in barometric pressure and an increase in humidity- makes peoples’ arthritis pain and swelling worse.
Although it may seem like it’s the dampness that makes your joints ache, the culprit appears to be barometric pressure. Also known as atmospheric pressure, this is a measure of the pressure, or weight, of the surrounding air. Some suggest that the key variable of increased pain and discomfort is rising barometric pressure. Other studies found just the opposite -that falling pressure could provoke joint pain or stiffness. There have even been attempts to artificially vary environmental conditions to mimic weather changes, such as placing arthritis sufferers in barometric chambers and varying the pressure up and down.
Our joints contain sensory nerves called baroreceptors, which respond to changes in the weather. When the weather changes, the air pressure changes, and the body responds accordingly. For example, when the weather is rainy and damp, the barometric pressure drops, causing our tendons, ligaments, and muscles to expand. The baroreceptors in our body respond, helping the central nervous system to regulate the resistance of blood vessels and the heart’s contractions. However, for those who already have muscle or joint pain, expansion in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments can irritate the already-sensitive areas.
High humidity levels can also thicken the blood, increasing pressure in the blood vessels. This forces the heart to work harder to pump the blood throughout the body. Hot, humid climates like those along the Gulf Coast and Southwest can also cause excessive sweating, which can be problematic in this type of climate. Our bodies produce sweat to keep us cool, but it is only when the sweat evaporates that our bodies cool down. When there is already a high level of moisture in the air, it is difficult for the air to absorb the moisture from our skin. This can eventually lead to a loss of body fluid and dehydration. Joint cartilage and the discs in our spine have high water content, and dehydration can decrease the concentration of fluid, agitating any arthritis that may be present.
Despite this, we still don’t know if it is one particular feature of the weather or a combination of features that matters. There are many potential factors – humidity, temperature, precipitation, and barometric pressure among them. Several studies have found some evidence supporting this link:
- A 2014 study published in the journal Pain found that barometric pressure and relative humidity affected symptoms in people with osteoarthritis of the hip. And an oft-cited study in the American Journal of Medicine, researchers at Boston’s Tufts University examined the effects of changes in weather in people with osteoarthritis of the knee. They found that for every 10-degree drop in temperature, knee pain increased. Increases in barometric pressure also were associated with worsened pain.
- A 2016 review of 12 research studies concluded “the evidence to support the common belief and observation that cold climate worsens arthritic symptoms, is weak, however, some studies and experiments have shown that patients with arthritic symptoms do experience a trend of worsening in pain and stiffness in cold and damp weather.”
- More recently, Dutch researchers compared reported pain and function scores (how people rate their ability to complete every day activities) in people with osteoarthritis of the hip to weather records. They discovered that pain scores worsened by one point for each 10 percent rise in humidity. Function scores also worsened as barometric pressure increased.
Want to know how you may be affected by weather in your area? Check out The Arthritis Index. It is based on a proprietary forecast by the meteorologists at AccuWeather.com. You can also visit The Arthritis Foundation and using your zip code, you can see how the current weather may be impacting your pain. Unlike other issues, weather thankfully is temporary. Keep yourself comfortable by staying warm. Stay active and be aware of your mood. Sleep well and stay hydrated. You need to keep your body hydrated, especially if you plan on spending a lot of time outside. Aim to drink 1-2 glasses of water for every hour you are outside. This will help you to restore your fluid levels and reduce water loss.
You can also take advantage of the warm weather and go swimming. Swimming is a great exercise for arthritis sufferers to loosen up sore joints despite the weather. Swimming laps at an indoor pool or joining a water therapy program can make a huge difference for arthritis sufferers during cold, rainy or humid seasons. Low-impact exercises like swimming can actually make a big difference for a joint’s range of motion over time. It’s a great form of therapy for joint or back pain. If you have back or spinal pain, biking is also a great low-impact form of exercise that is easy on the back. A stationary bike allows you to exercise regardless of the the outside conditions. When not exercising, a heating pad can also help to soothe and warm up joint and muscle pain.
Weather can be an inconvenience, but it doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying the day or dealing with your pain. Sometimes just knowing you’re not crazy is enough. Yes, weather can hurt. But understanding why and how to adjust can make all the difference.