Can Achy Joints Predict the Weather?

Your grandpa probably complained that rain was coming—he could feel it in his knees. We wouldn’t want to question an elder’s wisdom, but is there any scientific basis in his claims? One expert, Elaine Husni, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center, explains the effects of barometric pressure and why these aches and pains could be telling.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Dr. Husni says that many, but not all, of her osteoarthritis patients complain that weather does influence their pain levels. “There is some consensus that lower barometric pressure and dropping temperatures correlate with more joint pain,” says the Cleveland doctor. Barometric pressure—essentially the weight of the air around us—drops when it gets colder. The thinking, she explains, is that lightness can cause the thin lining known as the joint capsule, which surrounds joints and maintains lubrication, to expand and stretch nerves, causing pain. A similar phenomenon can occur with changes in humidity: As the weather becomes more damp or dry, there can be shifts in pressure that cause swelling around the joints, Dr. Husni says.

Theories include that “patients with arthritis already have inflammation of their joints (specifically around the joint capsule) so any additional changes in the atmosphere could be detected more easily,” she says. “Perhaps the nerve endings are more sensitive in patients with arthritis.”

People with migraines sometimes insist they feel headaches coming on when the air turns cold and the air pressure drops. These are called barometric pressure headaches, and a small study of 31 migraine sufferers in Naples, Italy, found that low pressure can lead to constricted blood vessels and result in more severe headaches, though the reasons, according to scientists, aren’t totally clear.

ot Quite Psychic

Dr. Husni is quick to point out that clinical studies have been conducted to find direct correlations between patients with hip or knee pain and changes in the weather, but the results were mixed. “There does seem to be a loose association between certain temperature variables like barometric pressure, cold temperatures and humidity and increased joint pain, but it isn’t so easy for patients to say with precision, ‘It will be 60 degrees and rainy tomorrow,’” she says. While many patients do feel more pain when it gets cold or humid, “they’re not psychic. In studies, they couldn’t predict the weather with accuracy.” 

Let’s Move to Florida?

The studies Dr. Husni cites don’t pinpoint an exact time of when pain is set off by changing temperatures, nor has she seen evidence that certain climates are better for those with joint pain. “A lot of people with osteoarthritis say they do better in warmer climates, but the changes in climate aren’t always clinically meaningful,” says the joint expert. She cites a study that tracked online searches for terms related to arthritis and knee and hip pain and weather changes across 5 years in 50 American cities. When temperatures fell to between -5°C and 30°C, search volumes for hip pain increased by 12 index points, and knee pain increased by 18 index points; above 30°C, search volumes dropped by 7 index points. Still, says Dr. Husni, the study didn’t prove predictive abilities—just curiosity. “It’s not like you need to move to a warmer climate,” says Dr. Husni. “We probably have better ways to ease symptoms and the root causes of joint pain.”

 

Finding Remedies

Blustery weather may indeed increase pain in those who suffer from joint pain, but Dr. Husni suggests some basic fixes. No matter your local climate, keep your core warm and dry, she says. A sweater, scarf and gloves are perfectly fine well into March.

In addition, there is no hard evidence to suggest that applying heat or cold will eradicate joint pain when bad weather hits. But “if an ice pack feels good or a heat pad helps, I’m not going to stop my patients from using them,” she says.

Anti-inflammatory medications are also go-tos, but Dr. Husni encourages patients with arthritis and other joint discomfort to seek medical advice. “Consult your doctor, who can treat you personally, she says. “Osteoarthritis affects 27 percent of Americans, and there are a lot of experts out there. Get diagnosed, get help, and you don’t have to suffer in bad weather.”