How Changes in Weather Affect Joint Pain

Barometric pressure can play a role in joint pain, but that doesn’t mean you have to live with it
woman's knee aches during weather changes

Tomorrow’s weather forecast for your creaky joints? Cloudy with a chance of pain.

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There’s a long-held belief that worsening weather can increase aches in your joints. There’s just something about cold and damp days that make your muscles, ligaments and joints feel stiff and painful.

But is there really a cause-and-effect relationship between weather and joint pain or is it just an age-old medical myth? For an answer, let’s check with chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC.

Does the weather affect your joints?

Judging by what Dr. Bang hears, the answer seems to be YES. “I see it all the time in my office,” he says. “People come in on bad weather days and they’re like, ‘I’m feeling it today. I’m really feeling it today.’”

They’re not the only ones. A study looking at pain felt by 13,000 United Kingdom residents living with conditions such as arthritis found that aches increased on days with:

  • Higher humidity.
  • Lower barometric pressure.
  • Stronger winds.

But as is often the case, nothing is 100% when it comes to research. Other studies show just a casual or mild relationship between changing weather and achy joints.

“So, is the belief about weather changes causing joint pain true?” asks Dr. Bang. “Well, it doesn’t happen to every person — but we know it happens to some. There’s something there. We just haven’t quite figured it out scientifically yet.”

How might barometric pressure cause joint aches?

Barometric pressure measures the weight of the air in the atmosphere pressing down against us. On average, the atmosphere exerts 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) on the Earth’s surface.

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But as the weather changes, that pressure/psi can bounce up and down.

Decreasing pressure — which typically ushers in worsening weather — means air presses a little less on our bodies. That lack of compression allows tissues within your body to swell slightly, which can irritate your joints.

The speed at which the pressure changes also makes a difference. A sudden drop in pressure as a storm blows into town creates more noticeable aches than a slow, gradual pressure decline.

“So, if you have arthritis, the space in your joint is already reduced,” notes Dr. Bang. “Add in an expansion of tissues because of the pressure change and you can see why people might hurt more.”

Colder temperatures and joint pain

Lower barometric pressure also brings weather that tends to be cooler — and that’s not ideal for your joints. Cold can make muscles, ligaments and joints stiffer and more painful.

“There’s an oily fluid between your joints, and when it’s cold or the pressure changes, it can get sludgy,” explains Dr. Bang. “That prevents the oily fluid from lubricating the joint quite as well and can lead to pain when you move around.”

Does where you live matter?

If damp, cold weather exacerbates chronic pain, you may wonder if you can avoid weather-related aches by moving to where the weather is milder, warmer or dryer. The answer? It’s not that simple.

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Let’s look at the United States, where different regions have vastly different weather. One study found that people in mild, moderate San Diego reported more weather-related pain than residents of Boston and other towns known for getting a tad chilly.

“The sensitivity is to change, and the humidity and barometric pressure goes up and down in every zip code,” notes Dr. Bang. “There’s no avoiding it.”

Also, there’s some evidence that extreme heat may aggravate joints similar to extreme cold.

Tips to lessen weather-related pain

While you can’t avoid changing weather, you can take steps to prevent, ease or relieve weather-related joint pain. Dr. Bang recommends:

  • Being active. Muscles, tendons and ligaments that don’t move tend to tighten up. It’s why you might feel creaky after sitting for long stretches. “Motion is lotion,” says Dr. Bang. “If you keep moving, you’re less likely to get some of these aches.”
  • Stretching regularly. Stretching regularly and doing yoga are great ways to increase flexibility and maintain joint health. (Try these stretches to keep your neck, back and shoulders loose.)
  • Staying warm. Dress for the weather … or even your home or office if the indoor temperature gives you an arctic vibe. “Coldness stiffens up your muscles,” he says. “Keeping them warm can help keep the pain away.”
  • Heat treatment. Take a hot shower or dig out that heating pad if you feel weather-related aches coming on. “If you can get heat to penetrate areas where you have pain, you increase blood flow and can loosen up tight ligaments, tendons and connective tissue.”
  • Reviewing your diet. Research shows that foods such as green tea, berries, broccoli and whole grains can reduce inflammation. So, eating better may help you feel better. (Learn more on the topic from a registered dietitian.)
  • Consider using anti-inflammatory medication. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) in pill or lotion form can work to reduce the swelling behind joint pain. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options.

“When it comes to making an achy joint feel better, there are three main things you can do to make it feel better — heat it up, tighten it up or loosen it up,” states Dr. Bang. “That can go a long way to solving any problems.”

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