13 Oct Can the weather make my joints ache?
“I Feel It In My Bones”! ……. Can the weather really make your joints ache?
“I feel it in my bones” or “I can tell that some rain is coming – I feel it in my knees”: We’ve heard it many times before, mainly from our grandparents, and some of us may actually be starting to fall in to that age group where you start to think “hang on, maybe my Nan was right’! Can a change in weather, and particularly a sudden change to cold weather, actually make you feel discomfort in your bones? Is this really just an old wives tale? As physio’s we hear this statement time and time again – too often in fact to just put it down to an old wives tale. Not only do people appear to be effected by an actual change in the weather, many seem to be able to predict what weather the following day may bring!
Well it seems that there may actually be some validity to these statements, as the thought is that barometric pressure may actually have an effect on your joints.
How Might Weather Cause Pain?
Whilst there’s no definitive research or evidence yet to explain the relationship between weather and pain, there are some plausible theories that make some sense.
One of the leading theories points to changes in air pressure, or barometric pressure. Barometric pressure can be defined as the pressure exerted by the weight of the air in our atmosphere.
People who experience this phenomenon will complain about the cold, and relate the aching pains to the cold weather itself. Research however indicates that it’s not the cold, wind, rain, or snow, but the change in barometric pressure! And to make things even more strange, it’s not high barometric pressure pushing on the joint that causes pain, it’s actually low barometric pressure (decreasing pressure often indicates the arrival of storms, rain, and windy weather) that seems to be the issue.
Surrounding your joints is a thickened layer of ligament and connective tissue, which we call the capsule. It is best to imagine the capsule like a balloon that helps hold the joint together and keep lubricating fluid inside the joint. Higher barometric pressures push against the body from the outside and help prevent this capsular tissue from expanding.
For example, consider the effect of barometric pressure on our body in a plane. At higher altitudes, there’s less barometric pressure therefore plane cabins are pressurized to help keep the balance of atmospheric pressure on our bodies. However planes can’t approximate the exact barometric pressure, therefore not uncommonly resulting in a person’s feet swelling as their ankle capsule/ligaments expand slightly. Feet often swell during a flight, but not while we’re seated at our desks for similar amounts of time at sea level, with atmospheric or barometric pressure being the obvious difference.
As barometric pressure often drops before bad weather sets in, this lower air pressure pushes less against the body, allowing tissues to expand, seemingly microscopically, but enough to cause sensitivity and discomfort. As the capsule and ligament structure is so deep and intricately associated with the joint, the perception for people is that their joints are aching, when in reality it’s more the soft tissue structures around the joint that are causing the pain.
Adding to this hypothesis is the fact that in chronic pain conditions, the soft tissues often develop inflammation, scarring and adhesions, making them even more vulnerable and highly sensitised to any sensory input, or stretching/expanding force. It is also quite possible that as well as effecting the capsule, this slight expansion also influences the synovial (lubricating) fluid in the joint, making it less efficient and less effective
Along with the “I feel it in my bones” declaration, it is almost as common to hear the proclamation “I was so much better in the warmer weather”! Is this truly the fact that the warmer weather has a higher barometric pressure, or that when people go to the warmer climates they are generally in holiday mode – relieved of the daily stresses and daily household/office activities that are probably a large cause of their pain. Perhaps it’s not the weather, but the relief from aggravating factors that produces the sense of wellbeing – food for thought!
One of the more recent studies, published in 2007, followed 200 arthritis sufferers and investigated the effect temperature, humidity, and pressure had on the subjects pain. They found that joint pain often preceded a change in barometric pressure.
Nevertheless, the link between pain and weather changes remains hypothetical; and research is definitely inconclusive! The great news is – whatever the reason – this “feel it in my bones pain” is temporary and usually passes on in a reasonably short period of time.