Predicting the Stormy Weather Through our Pain

We probably all know at least one person who is considered to be a human barometer as they can predict upcoming weather changes due to headaches or achy joints. How and why is pain/stiffness weather sensitive? Is it actually backed by scientific findings, or is it purely psychological?

Unfortunately, the majority of studies have found no significant relationship between different weather conditions and pain. Furthermore, findings were strictly subjective pain ratings without objective medical findings. Does this mean it is purely psychological? It is highly unlikely that so many people are wrong. As you can imagine, it is hard to control for weather in a study, as so many weather variables would have to be taken into consideration, that it makes it very difficult to find relationships between any one specific variable. For example, at least 50% of headache sufferers believe that weather changes trigger their migraines/headaches. However, wind speed, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and sunlight have all been reported as triggers. In addition, some individuals have headaches triggered by falling barometric pressure, while others report headaches with rising barometric pressure. These individual differences make it hard to see specific correlations with any one weather variable.

Overall, the studies that showed specific relationships between pain and weather generally found that cold and damp weather conditions influenced reports of pain in subjects with arthritis, headache, fibromyalgia, gout, low back pain and chronic pain.

Interestingly, one study that took place over a two-year period, examining the effects of weather on active individuals with osteoarthritis, found no relationship between weather and joint pain or stiffness. The authors concluded that exercising regularly, may have diminished the effects of weather on pain (Wilder et al., 2003).

How does weather affect symptoms?

Some studies have tried to explain the physiological effects that weather has on the body, but there haven’t been any conclusive results.

  • Some studies have shown that low vitamin D (less sunshine and less light) may play a role in increasing arthritis symptoms;
  • Some researchers suggest that mood may play a role. Damp and cold conditons are associated with a more negative mood, which in turn has been associated with higher pain levels. One study found that individuals reported the least number of symptoms on warm sunny days, due to more exercise, better sleep and a more positive mood;
  • Colder temperatures may increase joint stiffness and pain, due to an increase in viscosity of synovial fluid;
  • A decrease in barometric pressure will allow tissue to expand, therefore putting more strain on joints;
  • Increased humidity can cause increased joint swelling/stiffness.

Take home message:

There’s not much you can do to change the weather, studies have looked at different climates around the world, and they have yet to find the ideal location. As such, you need to focus on what you can control to help keep your headaches and achy joints happy.

  • Regular exercise may help prevent flare-ups of pain during poor weather conditions;
  • Add layers over your achy joints in order to keep them warm during cold and damp days;
  • Try to remain positive even if the weather is gloomy.

 

Aikman (1997). The association between arthritis and the weather. International Journal of biometeorology.

Wilder et al., (2003). Osteoarthritis pain and weather. Rheumatology. 955-95