As you look up at the sunny sky, you feel a twinge in your knee. Over the next few hours, your arthritis continues to flare up. While others might tease you about being able to predict the weather based on how your joints feel, you know without a doubt that a storm is on the way. Is this pain in your joints just a coincidence and an old wives’ tale, or can that terrible ache in your knee really be a warning that bad weather is on the horizon?
Barometric Pressure and Your Joints
When the weather is about to change for the worse, the barometric pressure falls. Your sensitive joints are picking up that pressure change. According to one study from the journal “Pain,” patients who suffer from chronic pain, have an easily irritated injury or have had a previous joint surgery are capable of feeling smaller barometric pressure changes than others.
What is barometric pressure? Also called atmospheric pressure, it’s simply the weight of the atmosphere that is directly around us. High-pressure areas have more atmospheric mass above their location, while low-pressure areas have less atmospheric mass.
Think of the tissue around your joints like a balloon. High or average barometric pressure squeezes this tissue and keeps it tightly in place, preventing inflammation. When the pressure drops as an incoming storm arrives, this “balloon” deflates. There’s less compression around your joint, which permits the joint to expand slightly and may increase inflammation.
Even though the expansion is microscopic, and it cannot be visually detected, this tiny amount of inflammation is enough to cause you discomfort. Especially if you have a previous condition like arthritis that affects the joint, this expansion can be enough to cause serious pain.
Dropping Temperatures May Increase Joint Pain
Changing temperatures may also play a role in making your joints ache. In winter, many arthritis sufferers find that their pain is increased. And when a storm is coming in and temperatures drop quickly, that can impact your pain levels.
In fact, a Tufts University study cited by the Arthritis Foundation found that every 10-degree drop in temperature corresponded with an incremental increase in arthritis pain.
Lower temperatures may actually increase the impact of pressure changes. Cold weather could cause tissues to shrink, expanding area around the joint and perhaps even pulling on nerves in a way that adds to the discomfort.
Doctors Have Supported This Claim for Years
While you may not have asked your doctor about your “pre-rain joint pain” because you thought it would sound crazy, most doctors understand that this is common. Dr. William F. Harvey, a rheumatologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, says, “It’s a very widely held belief. I am not sure I remember any patients who did not feel pain during weather changes.”
Researchers have also confirmed that pressure and temperature impact joint pain, especially in women. An American Journal of Medicine study found “consistent associations of pressure change and ambient temperature with pain severity” in the 200 people across the U.S. that participated in the research.
Are Correlations Between Weather and Joint Pain Conclusively Proven?
Even though most medical professionals believe there is a connection between weather and joint pain, there is not enough conclusive medical evidence to prove it without a doubt. While some studies, like in the American Journal of Medicine, show a connection, others show only a minor or no correlation between atmospheric pressure and temperature fluctuations and joint pain.
Part of the problem comes from how such an issue is studied: By asking people about their pain in colder or wetter weather, researchers may actually be influencing respondents to express that they feel more pain. In other words, simply the act of being asked and thinking about joint pain can make people think their pain is worse than it actually is.
In an effort to eliminate this type of research bias, researchers have struggled to find ways to accurately measure pain in study participants. That may be a big reason why results of the studies are inconclusive. It’s currently a challenge to conclusively prove that weather is responsible for joint pain.
What You Can Do to Minimize Pain
If you do feel pain in your joints during weather changes, it’s interesting to know that your experience is common — even if medical researchers haven’t definitely proven the connection. Regardless of what actually causes the increase in joint pain, you may just want to know how to reduce its impact. What practical steps can you take to keep from feeling the pain?
Anything you can do to minimize inflammation can make your joints less susceptible to changes in atmospheric pressure. Diet may make an impact on your overall joint health.
For example, one study on osteoarthritis patients found that women who consumed more milk experienced an decrease in the space around their knee joint. While the study didn’t look at what this means in the context of barometric pressure, a smaller gap in the area around the joint means there is less space for tissue to expand and contract during atmospheric pressure changes.
Another issue that could impact your arthritis in colder weather is your tendency to be less active. In stormy weather, you’re much less likely to walk outside or take on other activities like gardening that can keep you moving, and keep your joints from getting stiff. Make sure you stay active, perhaps with a gym membership or walking in an indoor area like a shopping mall, even when the weather is bad.
Warm water can also ease the pain associated with colder weather. A warm bath or hot tub soak can help support your joints and stimulate blood flow to your hurting areas.
If you do feel pain in your joints before the weather starts to change, know that it’s not all in your mind. Your spouse or your kids may give you a hard time when you say, “My knee hurts. It’s going to rain!” but there is a fair chance that you will be right.