By Kathy Driscoll –
As winter approaches, the weather can become our enemy with changes in temperature, humidity and barometric pressure bringing more joint and muscle aches, not to mention headaches, asthma and allergies.
This isn’t exactly a news flash, of course. For centuries, the weather has been blamed for maladies of all sorts, despite skeptical family, friends and lastly researchers. “We all know somebody who claims they can predict the weather with their body,” Amanda Ellison, professor of Neuroscience at Durham University in England reported The Conversation. “Whether it’s your arthritic relative who knows rain is on the way when their knees ache or your lifelong pal who gets a headache when a storm is approaching,” she wrote.
Admittedly, the connection between weather changes and aches and pains has generally been tough to prove, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. Scientists at Britain’s University of Manchester, in fact, confirmed what grandma always knew. The university’s research confirmed a connection between chronic pain and humid, windy days with low atmospheric pressure. The study, humorously titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain,” examined how more than 2,600 people, mostly with arthritis, responded to weather changes over a six-month period. A recording app allowed the participants to report their pain levels while cross checking regional weather systems.
Participants reported about a 20 percent increase in pain on damp and windy days with low pressure, while the most painful periods were registered on humid, windy days that were also cold, according to Will Dixon, the study’s lead author.
A more recent study published in 2020 in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society came to similar conclusions after analyzing data from10,000 people who reported daily pain levels. Higher pain levels corresponded with lower pressure, including higher humidity and precipitation, while lower pain days were associated with higher pressure, weaker winds and drier air.
Establishing correlations between weather changes and increased pain levels is only half the battle. The report in the society’s bulletin also explained that a decline in air pressure causes fluid sacs in joints to expand, which triggers a jump in noticeable pain.
Ultimately, a jump in discomfort is a pretty sound indicator that a low-pressure system is on the way, according to the study’s lead author, David Schultz, professor of Synoptic Meteorology at the University of Manchester.
“When lower pressure is approaching the UK, that’s when people start to notice an increase in their pain. When there’s a high-pressure pattern, that’s when people tend not to report painful events,” he reported.
If bad weather is tough on the joints, it’s also an aggravator for other health conditions, including migraines, asthma and allergies, reports the Cleveland Clinic. Changes in barometric pressure caused by approaching storms along with shifts in humidity are all linked to migraines. “In fact. more than half of migraine sufferers have a weather trigger,” noted Dr. Emad Estemalik, MD, a headache specialist at the clinic.
In line with this, changes in barometric pressure can also do a number on inflammation in the nose and sinuses, leading to the possibility of uncomfortable pressure and pain. “So, when the skies turn gray and the rain starts to fall, make sure you have your sinus medicine on hand,” advised Lily Pien, an allergist-immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Despite grandma’s insights and the expanding range of research into the correlation between weather changes and pain, not all researchers are buying the connection. They argue that pain can be influenced by many different factors, including just the simple suggestion that your joints might become achy when the weather turns.
One study even went so far as to look at insurance claim data on the correlation between rainfall and the number of outpatient visits for joint or back pain. It found no connection whatsoever.
“It may be true for an individual that there’s a correlation between the weather and joint symptoms. But, on average, that link has not been demonstrated in studies,” Robert Shmerling, a rheumatologist and senior editor at Harvard Health Publications, told the Washington Post.