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Pain Management Health Center

Does Weather Affect Joint Pain?

How the weather can affect joint pain, and what to do about it.
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How Might Weather Cause Pain? continued...

How to explain?

There's no full agreement among scientists that weather causes pain, or if a specific mechanism is at fault, Jamison says. But there are plausible theories.

One leading theory points to changes in air pressure. Although many people say that their pain worsens with damp, rainy weather, research has shown that it's not the cold, wind, rain, or snow, Borenstein says. "The thing that affects people most is barometric pressure."  

Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

If you imagine the tissues surrounding the joints to be like a balloon, high barometric pressure that pushes against the body from the outside will keep tissues from expanding.

But barometric pressure often drops before bad weather sets in. This lower air pressure pushes less against the body, allowing tissues to expand -- and those expanded tissues can put pressure on the joint. "It's very microscopic and we can hardly notice, except that we have these sensations," Jamison says.

Furthermore, when people have chronic pain, sometimes nerves can become more sensitized because of injury, inflammation, scarring, or adhesions, he says.

Nevertheless, the link between pain and weather changes remains hypothetical; research has come to mixed conclusions, Jamison says. "All the results are not very clean, meaning there are people who say that weather doesn't affect their pain."

Borenstein agrees that there's no consensus, but he finds barometric pressure a likely explanation because it does affect people's bodies.

"It's not metaphysical; it's actually physical. It's the same kind of thing that you have with people who go up in a plane or [astronauts]," he says. "They are creatures of the atmosphere."

At higher altitudes, there's less barometric pressure and our bodies react accordingly, Borenstein says. "When there's less pressure, we expand," he says. For example, he notes, even though plane cabins are pressurized, our feet often swell during a flight, but not while we're seated at our desks for similar amounts of time at sea level.

Should You Move to Florida or Arizona?

It's a question that doctors hear all the time from arthritis patients.

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