Why Do Joints Hurt When the Weather Changes? Dr. Rahman Kandil


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When your grandmother tells you to get ready for a storm because she can feel her knees stiffening up, she may be onto something. For many people, the flare-up of an arthritic knee or shoulder joint seems to signal a shift in temperature, humidity, or barometric pressure—the weight of the air in the atmosphere. The belief that achy joints and other health-related ailments, like asthma and migraines, are related to inclement weather is so prevalent, it is widely accepted as reality. Patients complain enough about stiff or aching joints during stormy or cold weather, that many doctors believe there must be some correlation, even without hard scientific proof.


Fact or Fiction?

In spite of the widespread belief, there is little solid evidence to support a connection between weather and health. Since the mid-1800s, a number of medical and weather-related research studies have been done in an effort to establish a relationship between the two. The results of these studies vary and most are based on anecdotal patient accounts, not solid evidence. For instance, patients in 1 study claimed that their joint pain increased as barometric pressure increased. Another showed that joint pain increased as barometric pressure decreased. Still other studies suggest that changing weather conditions cause immediate pain in some patients and delayed pain in others.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, this disparity may lie in the rise and fall of barometric pressure rather than the actual measure of barometric pressure. When it increases or decreases, people are more likely to complain that their pain level intensifies, but their pain often levels out once the pressure in the atmosphere stabilizes. It should be noted that there might be a psychological aspect to believing that weather impacts joint pain. Some doctors suggest that patients who observe weather conditions when they experience pain may pay little or no attention to the weather when they do not have any pain.


Easing Weather-Related Joint Pain

Despite what the skeptics say, there is no denying that pain is pain, no matter the cause. There are a few theories that may help explain a potential relationship between extreme weather and joint pain, including:

  • People with joint pain, especially when caused by arthritis, may be particularly sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. When the cartilage that cushions the bones inside a joint wears away, nerves in the bones may detect changes in pressure.
  • Changes in weather could cause a chemical effect in the synovial fluid that lines and lubricates the joints, resulting in pain and inflammation.
  • Changes in barometric pressure may cause tendons, muscles, and scar tissue to expand and contract, causing pain in joints affected by arthritis.
  • Cold temperatures can make fluid inside of joints thicker, making them feel stiffer. When temperatures plummet, people also tend to stop moving around as much, only exacerbating the feeling of stiff and painful joints.

Ways to Help Ease Joint Pain in Inclement Weather

For those who believe that cold or stormy weather negatively impacts their joint pain, doctors suggest many of the same remedies that they offer to all patients with joint pain, such as:

  • Stretching and warming up before exercise or heading outdoors
  • Using heat creams and heating pads
  • Wearing warm, protective clothing
  • Dressing in layers, including socks and gloves when temperatures are cold
  • Regularly doing gentle exercises like yoga and swimming to help strengthen joints and muscles
  • Trying anti-inflammatory pain medications like ibuprofen or naproxen

Conclusion

Before you buy a 1-way ticket to the Caribbean, there is no definitive evidence that moving to a warmer climate provides a cure for aching joints. Many patients claim that their pain disappears for a while, only to return a few months later. If warm weather makes you feel better psychologically, though, it certainly will not hurt you physically.

The bottom line? Patients should develop a plan with their doctors for when the weather changes. The notion that climate impacts joint pain is innocent enough as long as it does not interfere with a patient’s motivation to change the things that they actually can control. Anticipation of a favorable weather forecast is no substitute for exercise, weight loss, and medication, when necessary. You never know—your grandmother may be an amateur meteorologist, after all.


If you would like to make an appointment with Dr. Rahman Kandil to discuss joint pain that may need to be addressed, go to Dr. Kandil's physician page or call (703) 665-2720 and we will be happy to assist you.

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