Oh, my aching joints! Is weather to blame?

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Hand close-upPULLMAN, Wash. – A smattering of studies supported by legions of testimonials suggest that many of us feel weather in our bones.

From an arthritic joint to a healed broken bone, the deep-seated belief has been that certain weather conditions trigger a flare-up of stiffness and/or pain.

Blaming cold and dampness is largely anecdotal. But a growing number of small-scale studies are identifying barometric pressure — the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us, or simply the weight of air — as the leading culprit.

Sarah Fincham

“I’ve definitely heard it from my patients over the years, who say, ‘I swear, the weather makes my joints ache,’” said family nurse practitioner Sarah Fincham, assistant clinical professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing in Spokane.

“Finally, science is starting to back up their claims,” she said.

The exact mechanism has been hard for researchers to pinpoint because weather encompasses so many conditions and variables. There are a number of factors that can affect barometric pressure, including the amount of water vapor in the air (humidity), altitude and temperature.

“Trying to determine which change is impacting humans and to quantify how those changes are affecting humans has posed a challenge,” said Fincham.

With time, the physiological effects of weather are becoming more evident. A 2007 study published by researchers at Tufts-New England Medical Center showed a correlation between reports of increased arthritic knee pain and changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature. More recently, Dutch researchers demonstrated a link between pain and stiffness in people with hip osteoarthritis and changes in weather.

The connections are notable because changes in barometric pressure often signal impending changes in weather conditions.

Changes in barometric pressure can make joints hurt. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)
Changes in barometric pressure can make joints hurt. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)

“The theory is that a drop or an increase in barometric pressure can cause joints and muscle tissues to expand or contract. Changes in air pressure and cold temperatures might also affect the lining of the joints and the ligaments of the joints, causing a feeling of stiffness or discomfort,” said Fincham.

However, not everyone is affected equally — if at all. Just as some people are more sensitive to altitude changes while flying in a plane, the same holds true with sensitivities to barometric changes, she said.

“Not only are some individuals more affected by weather than others, but their bodies may respond in different ways,” she said, adding that some patients with musculoskeletal pain may be more sensitive to weather changes than others patients.

Knowing that at least one aspect of weather can ramp up stiffness and achiness, keep in mind that the condition is short-term, not permanent, Fincham said. To try to minimize the effects of weather on joints and muscles, wear layers to keep warm, drink plenty of water and warm up before exercising, she advised.