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May 16, 2014

Healthy Aging: Does the Weather Really Affect Joints?

April showers bring May flowers, but do they also bring joint pain?

You’ve probably heard (or maybe even said!) the expression “I feel it in my bones” in regards to a shift in weather. It could be a sunny day, but the pain in your knee leads you to believe there’s a storm on the horizon. Or perhaps you’re convinced your arthritis acts up more when a cold front comes through. You might feel silly about it, but here’s the crazy part: You’re usually right. 

While scientists haven’t reached a consensus as to how and why the weather affects joint pain, research has shown a link. A study published in the journal Pain interviewed people in four cities about their chronic pain. Of all the people interviewed, 66 percent reported that weather affected their pain, with the majority also saying their pain could help “predict” the weather.

The most common theory for why this is true involved barometric pressure, or the weight of the atmosphere. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of the main weather and pain contributors being rain and cold, barometric pressure is the most likely instigator. When joints are already inflamed, like in the case with arthritis, barometric pressure can affect how the inflamed tissue is able to swell further. On the reverse, a decrease in barometric pressure would enable the tissues surrounding the joint to be able to swell, which would lead to more pain.

The amount of people who swear by their connection to the weather suggests that there must be some science behind the aches and pains that come with shifts in weather. In addition to barometric pressure, some scientists believe cold weather in the culprit.

So, why does all this matter? Well, as convenient as it might be to predict the weather with even more accuracy than your local weatherman, the connection could serve a greater purpose. At the very least, the connection between weather and joint pain might be as simple as lifestyle choices related to the temperature outside. Many patients who struggle with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, for example, report greater pain during the winter months tied to colder weather and inactivity. The more we learn about these connections and the definitive effect they have on the body, the more we can know how to treat patients and keep them the most comfortable possible.

Approximately 46 million Americans suffer from arthritis, and while moving to a different climate doesn’t exactly solve their pain issues, having a good grasp on the effect weather can have on their joint health might yield some answers. If you’ve noticed a tie between weather and your pain, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to make yourself more comfortable.

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