It is common for people with chronic joint pain to feel more pain and stiffness when the weather turns damp or cold. While it might be tempting to be skeptical when an elderly relative says his or her joints are predicting that it will rain tomorrow, it turns out they may be right. Essentially, our joints sometimes act as human barometers.
Researchers believe it’s not actually the cold, snow or rain that causes an increase in joint pain, but rather a change in barometric pressure. Robert Jamison, PhD, a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief psychologist at the Pain Management Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and several colleagues performed experiments with chronic pain sufferers to investigate this phenomenon. The resulting study reported that “67.9 percent of the people surveyed responded that they were sure changes in the weather had an effect on their pain. Most of the patients reported that they can feel a change in their pain before rain or cold weather occur.”
Jamison likens the joints to a balloon. “When a balloon is inflated, it has the maximum inside and outside pressure. High barometric pressure that pushes against the body from the outside keeps tissues from expanding.” But when the weather changes, the barometer drops, reducing atmospheric pressure and allowing tissues to swell. This can put increased pressure on the nerves that send pain signals. “It doesn’t take much expansion or contraction of tissue to affect a pain trigger,” Jamison adds.
Moving to a warmer climate unfortunately will not help the problem in most cases. Jamison says “There’s no heaven on earth. If you have awful back or neck pain … there’s a good chance that that pain will travel with you.” According to Jamison’s research, there is no area of the country where people experience less pain. The patients with chronic pain who lived in San Diego reported just as much pain as their counterparts in Boston. Jamison says, “I think as mammals, we kind of adjust to our climate.”
So what can be done to manage joint pain that comes and goes with the weather? Experts suggest a few possible strategies you can take:
- Support your joints – Use joint supports (such as elastic knee bandages or support gloves for your hands) to keep tissues from expanding with the change in weather.
- Keep warm – Dressing warmly and applying a heating pad or hot water bottle to painful areas will help to relax your muscles, easing pain.
- Keep moving – Much as you may long to stay curled up under the duvet in bad weather, moving around will help keep your joints from stiffening. Try doing some gentle yoga and stretching exercises.
You may not be able to avoid weather-related pain entirely, but rest assured that an eventual improvement in the weather will likely bring some pain relief as well.