"Aches and pain, coming rains..."


Author: Brooke Carmen, PT, DPT: Doctor of Physical Therapy and Blog Contributor.  Loves fun informational gems.  Fitness addict and wannabe foodie. Emphasizes patient-specific treatment style and promotes goal-oriented care. Learn more about Brooke on here.


You’ve probably heard of at least one of the following folklore phrases:  “aches and pain, coming rains,” “ill health due to evil winds,” and “feeling under the weather,” but can weather really affect our joint pain?

I frequently have patients tell me their pain is significantly changes with the weather, and I am believer that it can, however,I decided to do a little research on the topic to find out does weather really alter symptoms or is this a old myth?

The idea that weather affected joint pain first came from Hippocrates in 400 B.C. when he claimed that many illnesses were related to seasonal changes.[1] Many countries and cultures developed the same thought.  Interestingly enough, the word rheumatism is actually from the Chinese medicine term fengshi bing which translates into “wind-damp disease.” [1]

So what does the evidence say?

In 1887, the American Journal of Medical Sciences published the first documented changes in joint pain perception associated with weather. [2] It was a case report that described a person with phantom limb pain who concluded that “approaching storms, dropping barometric pressure and rain were associated with increased pain complaint.” [2] Many studies afterward looked at those with arthritic conditions and most concluded that barometric pressure changes affected arthritic joint pain.

What is the theory behind this?  James Fant, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of rheumatology at the South Carolina’s School of Medicine's University Specialty Clinics explains it simply.  [3] He says if the barometric pressure drops, that gives an already inflamed joint more room to swell.  Otherwise, the atmospheric pressure is holding it back.  He also says cold weather could “shrink the tissue down,” tugging on nerves which will increase pain. [3] We need to remember, though, these are theories.  Evidence of these specific mechanisms are actually vague.

Tuft’s University says joint pain can be affected by weather changes. [4] In 2007, the university located in Boston, MA studied 200 individuals with knee OA.  They compared the participants’ knee pain in relation to the daily values for temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, precipitation, and relative humidity.  The study found that barometric pressure and ambient temperature changes are independently related to the severity of the participants’ knee pain. [4]

On the controversy, Stanford researcher Amos Tversky found something different in the 1990’s. [5]  He compared the pain reports of 18 rheumatoid-arthritis patients with local weather conditions for a year and found no connection. Tversky concluded that “people’s beliefs about arthritis pain and the weather may tell more about the workings of the mind than of the body.” [5]  Although many researchers share the same belief, you must consider that Tversky’s pt population of 18 in his study does not allow for a strong argument.

Final conclusion:  does weather affect joint pain?

In my opinion, the answer is yes, but not everyone’s joint pain.  There is an overwhelming amount of reports of barometric pressure and cold temperature that affect arthritic pain, but there lacks information on non-arthritic pain.  Even if Tversky’s idea that the mind alters the pain rather than the body is correct, remember that the mind is what processes our pain no matter what.  In conclusion, more research needs to be performed to find a solid answer whether or not weather affects joint pain.  Based on my personal experience and conversations with patients, it overwhelmingly does.

What are your experiences with weather and joint pain?

Share them with us!

RESOURCES:

[1] "IASP Newsletter." Pain 37.3 (1989): n. pag. Waybackarchive.org. International Association for the Study of Pain Newsletter. Web. 10 Oct. 29.

[2]  Shutty MS, Cunduff G, DeGood DE. Pain complaint and the weather: weather sensitivity and symptom complaints in chronic pain patients. Pain 1992; 49:199–204.

[3] "Fact or Myth: Weather Affects Arthritic Joint Pain." University Specialty Clinics. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.

[4]  McAlindon, T., M. Formica, CH Schmid, and J. Fletcher. "Changes in Barometric Pressure and Ambient Temperature Influence Osteoarthritis Pain." Am J Med. (2007): 429-34. Www.pubmed.gov. Web.

[5] Melinda, Beck. "How Your Knees Can Predict the Weather." WSJ. N.p., 13 Oct. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

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