Dr. Kyle: Can Changes in Weather Predict Pain?

 

 

I always thought my grandma was crazy when she’d say I can “feel” a storm coming as she’d rub her knees. To my surprise, her knees were often better at predicting the weather than our local news. How come?

It’s believed that changes in barometric pressure can lead to increases in musculoskeletal pain. In particular, for individuals suffering from osteoarthritis. But what’s surprising is most of the research is either inconclusive or there’s little evidence to support these claims.

After hearing a number of my patients describe similar changes in pain levels due to the changes in weather, I thought I’d take a further look at these claims.

In one survey by Von Mackensen et al., one to two thirds of patients with rheumatoid arthritis believed their symptoms were weather-sensitive (1).

Other studies found an increase in barometric pressure or a drop in ambient temperature are both associated with an increase in pain (2).

At first glance it appears there may in fact be some credible evidence to support this strange phenomenon, but why?

Joint Pain in Scuba Divers

Have you ever swam to the very bottom of a pool in the deep end and felt your ears pop? This sudden change in pressure is similar to what scuba divers experience but on a smaller scale.

Sudden changes in tissue gas tension surrounding the joints can cause fluid shifts and interference of joint lubrication. When divers go deep, their joints may hurt as there’s not as much fluid surrounding their joints. This becomes worse if severe osteoarthritis exists (3).

Why Your Joints Hurt More on Colder Days

Colder temperature and its association with increased pain is much easier to explain. We know that cold temperature reduces inflammatory markers, changes the viscosity of the fluid in our joints, and can decrease the strength and support of our muscles around joints (4). Patients tend to experience more severe joint pain during the cold winter months.

Show Me Your Search History and I’ll Diagnose Your Pain

I still recommend an in-person consultation but we’re close to this becoming a reality. A recent study found an association with local weather and rates of online searches for musculoskeletal pain symptoms.

Searches for arthritic related symptoms are significantly more common in climates closer to -5 degrees Celsius than 30 degrees Celsius. Although this doesn’t explain WHY osteoarthritic patients suffer more pain, it gives us a better idea of WHEN they experience worse symptoms and under WHAT conditions (5).

Well there you have it folks. There are still many uncertainties and unknowns on why joint pain increases when the temperature drops or pressure rises. But if you can sense the next snow storm or torrential downpour from your knees and not the news, you may be experiencing some underlying osteoarthritis.

1. Von Mackensen S, Hoeppe P, Maarouf A, Tourigny P, Nowak D.
Prevalence of weather sensitivity in Germany and Canada. Int J
Biometeorol. 2005;49(3):156-166.

2. McAlindon T, Formica M, LaValley M, Lehmer M, Kabbara K.
Effectiveness of glucosamine for symptoms of knee osteoarthritis:
results from an internet-based randomized double-blind controlled
trial. Am J Med. 2004;117(9):643-649.

3. Compression pains. In: US Navy Diving Manual. Revision 4 ed. Naval
Sea Systems Command; U.S. Government Printing. 1999:3-45.

4. Golde B. New clues into the etiology of osteoporosis: the effects of
prostaglandins (E2 and F2 alpha) on bone. Med Hypotheses. 1992;
38(2):125-131.

5. McAlindon T, Formica M, Schmid CH, Fletcher J. Changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature influence osteoarthritis pain. The American journal of medicine. 2007 May 1;120(5):429-34.