If you’re like me, you’re looking forward to the coming months of cooler weather. At the same time, you might dread what the cold does to your pain. In a past post I explained how weather may impact pain levels through sensory nerves in our joints called baroreceptors. When the weather changes, the air pressure changes, and the body responds accordingly.
Like all matter, air is composed of molecules. These molecules have mass and are subjected to the force of Earth’s gravity. Air pressure is the weight of air molecules pressing down on you. When the weather is cold and damp, the barometric pressure drops, causing our tendons, ligaments, and muscles to expand. The baroreceptors in our body respond by 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 these 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 blood throughout the body, making it harder to get vital nutrients to areas of pain and remove inflammation.
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 due to humidity, it is difficult for the air to absorb the moisture from our skin. This can eventually lead to bodily fluid losses and dehydration. Since joint cartilage and the discs in our spine have a high water content, dehydration can decrease this concentration of fluid, agitating anyone with underlying arthritis.
A new study published October 24, 2019 exploited digital technology and took this data to a new level. It found that humidity, wind and days with low barometric pressures make pain worse. Those with conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine and neuropathic pain are 20% more likely to suffer pain in such weather, reveals a study carried out by scientists from the University of Manchester, UK. Relatively high humidity appeared to be the most important factor in pain levels, according to data gathered from more than 13,000 people across the UK during 2016. Low pressure and higher wind speed were also linked to increased pain, but to a lesser extent. Dry days were least likely to be painful.
Participants recorded their symptoms on a smartphone app, and scientists used GPS data to record weather conditions on specific days. The study, called “ Cloudy with a Chance of Pain,” was funded by the charity- Versus Arthritis. Researchers also considered the explanation that weather influences mood, and mood can influence pain, but found that the association between weather and pain remained even when accounting for mood.
This is a major breakthrough since it helps people understand that, yes, the increased pain is real, and no, it can’t be controlled. “Knowing how the weather impacts pain can enable people to accept that the pain is out of their control, it is not something they have caused, or could have done differently in their own self-management,” says Stephen Simpson, director of research for Versus Arthritis. “Supporting effective ways of self-managing pain can make all the difference for people with arthritis, helping them to get and stay in work, to be full members of the community and simply to belong,”
The study results mean it could be possible to develop a pain forecast allowing people who suffer from chronic pain to plan their activities accordingly on days predicted to change levels of pain. This data set can also provide information to scientists interested in understanding the mechanisms of pain, which could ultimately open the door to new treatments.
This just reinforced what those of us suffering from chronic pain already knew- the higher the humidity, the colder it is outside, the more we hurt. That’s why dry summer days are better tolerated. For now, stay warm, keep active and hydrate regularly.