Ever since I broke my finger in the 8th grade, I have had the ability to sense when it is going to rain or become quite cold. However, as I got older, I realized that large amounts of people have this ability and that it is not unique. It is very common for people to blame weather for increased pain in their joints. We all know someone who say things like “my knees are hurting more than usual today, it must mean that tomorrow is going to rain”. It is a phenomenon that is most often associated with cities that experience extremely cold weather, but it happens to many people in Hong Kong too possibly due to the humidity and precipitation. Even in a city like San Diego where the temperature is always mild and never gets too hot or too cold, people report a great sensitivity to weather changes.
So what is it that brings on increased joint pain with weather changes? Currently, there is no full agreement among scientists that weather causes pain, and the exact mechanism is not known, but there are several plausible theories. Although people blame the cold, wind, rain or snow, research suggests that barometric pressure is what affects people the most.
Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us. Imagine the tissues surrounding the joints to be like a balloon. Barometric pressure normally pushes against the body from the outside and keeps the tissues from ballooning out or expanding. Usually before bad weather starts, the barometric pressure of the environment decreases. Because there is less air pressure pushing against the body, this allows the tissues surrounding the joints to expand and this leads to more pressure on the joints. If the joints have arthritis already, this increased pressure may lead to more pain. When people have chronic pain, often the nerves are already more sensitive due to injury, inflammation, adhesions, and scarring. In these people, even very minor changes in barometric pressure can lead to pain.
Cold weather can affect joint fluid thickness so that there is less lubrication in the joints that leads to more pain. When the temperature is cold outside, the tissues of the body contract and this pulls on the nerve endings that can lead to increased sensitivity or pain. So when the barometric pressure drops when it is cold, again there will be less air pressure pushing against the tissues and this inflamed tissue will expand leading to more pain.
There are many methods to alleviate weather related joint pain. One of the most effective strategies is to keep active. Exercise helps to lubricate the joints to prevent pain. Try some low impact aerobic moves that are easy on the joints such as walking, Yoga, or Tai Chi, which enhances the range of motion. Stretch in the mornings and evenings to stay flexible and decrease tension. Swimming in a heated pool can help alleviate back and joint pain. You can also try applying a heating pad onto your painful joints to let the muscles relax and sooth the joint pain.
As a chiropractor, I have seen first hand how this regular therapy can help these patients. Many of my patients complain of increased joint pain with poor weather. After undergoing a treatment plan where the movement of their joints improves significantly, their weather related pain dissipates. Now these patients no longer have joint pain with damp or cold weather.