Grandma was right. Her achy knees really could sense rain on the way.
“Weather changes actually can affect chronic pain — specifically joint pain,” says Robert Bolash, MD, pain management specialist at Cleveland Clinic.
There may not be great scientific proof, he notes, but the anecdotal evidence is significant.
A new five-year study of online search data adds weight to these claims. Correlating local U.S. weather data with online searches for “arthritis,” researchers saw a decline in search activity once temperatures reached 86 degrees. In contrast, searches for “stomach pain” were unrelated to local weather.
“People with arthritis, neck pain or other types of musculoskeletal issues tend to report most weather-related pain,” says Dr. Bolash. “Weather doesn’t seem to have as much effect on nerve pain, like complex regional pain syndrome or neuropathy.”
Scientists don’t agree on how weather causes pain. Many think it’s due to higher humidity accompanied by falling barometric pressure — the weight of air pressing on the Earth, and us.
Decreasing pressure (which ushers in bad weather) means air presses less on our bodies. That allows tissues to swell slightly. It could be the enlarged tissue that irritates joints.
Cooler temperatures don’t help. Cold can make muscles, ligaments and joints stiffer and more painful.
But Dr. Bolash says it’s more the change in pressure, temperature and humidity that triggers discomfort.
“When barometric pressure and temperature fall and humidity rises, patients will complain of more aches and pains,” he says. “It’s the damp cold that seems to exacerbate pain.”
So, is it a good idea to move where the weather is more constant — like Florida?
Researchers say climate doesn’t really matter.
One study found that even people in mild, moderate San Diego reported weather-related pain. In fact, they reported more pain than residents of the study’s three colder cities: Nashville, Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts.
“Chronic pain doesn’t care where you live,” says Dr. Bolash. “Humidity and barometric pressure change everywhere.”
You can’t avoid changing weather, but you can take steps to ease weather-related pain. Dr. Bolash recommends:
“For patients with pain in a single joint — such as the site of a former knee injury — we might pursue steroid injection or other treatment,” says Dr. Bolash. “However, maintaining mobility is the best way to fend off widespread joint pain without visiting your physician.”