Ever heard someone say they know it’s going to rain because they get a twinge in their knee? It’s not uncommon to hear people with joint issues say that the cold can trigger pain, as our joints can be sensitive to changes in the weather.
James Fant, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of Rheumatology at the School of Medicine’s University Specialty Clinics, says that while there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support these statements, he’s seen enough cases in his 20 years of medical practice to conclude that there must be some form of correlation between the weather and joint issues.
There are different theories that support this occurrence – one concerning barometric pressure or general air pressure i.e. the weight of the air around us. Barometric pressure changes with the weather, dropping before bad weather sets in. Fant shares the theory that an inflamed joint will swell as barometric pressure decreases, because there is a lack of pressure to hold the tissue back. The nerves in the tissue would thus be stimulated by the swelling and cause pain.
Cold weather would work the opposite way from barometric pressure – in that lower temperatures might shrink tissue, pulling on the nerves and also causing pain. So, any sort of condition where nerves would be impacted, will induce pain in those with joint issues regardless of the weather conditions.
Fant has also seen his patients show a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome. This causes decreased blood supply in the hands or cold-induced vasospasms, which will be worse in colder weather.
A 2013 study involving 16,000 patients in Belgium presented at the European Society of Cardiology claimed that cold weather could raise the risk of stroke, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death. Findings showed that heart-attack risks rose 7 per cent for every 10 degrees Celsius drop in temperature.
This increased heart risk could likely be due to thickening blood and constricting blood vessels, conditions that could also aggravate joint pain.
Does this mean moving to warmer climates would be a good solution? Not necessarily. Robert Newlin Jamison, PhD, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and anaesthesiology at Harvard Medical School, says that might not be the case.
Jamison is a researcher who has studied weather’s effects on chronic pain patients. His research found that in San Diego, where it has a comparatively warm climate, people there reported the greatest sensitivity to weather changes.
He concludes that as mammals, we tend to adjust to our climate. In San Diego, temperatures rarely vary but any change was apparently felt very quickly by Jamison’s research subjects.
Moving to warmer climates might help in the first few months, but once the body adjusts to the new location, the old pains might return. While warm, dry weather is favoured by many of those with arthritis or musculoskeletal pain, in some cases, people might feel more comfortable in cooler, more humid climates. So it really varies with each individual.
Managing Weather Changes
While weather changes might not affect everyone, those who do feel them in their joints might benefit from keeping warm. Blankets, coats, jackets, gloves, whatever helps a joint issue sufferer can be worn so long as they’re comfortable. Clothing that prevents swelling, such as Spandex gloves, could also help by preventing fluid from building up in joints.
Jamison further advised pain sufferers to manage their moods and to remember that their discomfort can be minimised, and the pain is temporary. If they feel especially chilled by the wind, they can still cover themselves up and keep warm as a way to keep the pain at bay, for instance.
Moving around and exercising in cold weather might also help joint issue sufferers. The tendency to be sedentary during colder months or bad weather, as opposed to being more active in fair weather, might exacerbate joint issues.
To summarise, while studies are not conclusive and there is no clear evidence on the correlation between weather and joint pain, patients’ complaints should not be ignored or discounted.’. More importantly, what helps joint issue sufferers become more comfortable will vary. Whether they prefer warmer, drier conditions or slightly cooler, more humid temperatures, the best thing to do is try to accommodate those needs. The added benefit of knowing when it’s going to rain because your knee just told you is at least one silver lining to your joint sensitivity.