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Does Weather Affect Joint Pain?

How the weather can affect joint pain, and what to do about it.

How Might Weather Cause Pain? continued...

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.

"People with chronic pain, if they can't get out as much -- and it's so cold all the time or rainy or snowy -- then they think, ‘Boy, I'd like to go some place where the weather isn't quite so dramatic,'" Jamison says of his patients in Boston.

Though he doesn't advise against moving to warmer climes, he does try to offer realistic expectations. "There's no heaven on earth," he says. "If you have awful back or neck pain ... there's a good chance that that pain will travel with you."

In fact, in Jamison's research, people from San Diego reported the greatest sensitivity to weather changes -- a surprise finding, considering that it had the warmest climate, compared to Nashville and the two Massachusetts cities.

San Diegans in his study noticed pain even with small changes in weather. "You think of San Diego and the temperature is always mild -- it never gets too cold or particularly too hot -- but with just a small change, people with pain still reported that they could detect it," Jamison says. "I think as mammals, we kind of adjust to our climate."

So it's not always helpful to believe "that whole myth of, 'Go to Arizona when you live in the Northeast and somehow your pain will be a lot better,'" Jamison says. "We know that if you ask people to rate their pain in Minnesota or Arizona or California or even Florida, there's no one area of the country where you'd say, ‘There's less pain there.'"

Borenstein notes, too, that when people with arthritis vacation in a warm climate, they often stay in a hotel and eat out, relieving them of daily duties that cause pain. And that relief can be deceptive, he says, because if they actually move to a warmer climate and resume daily activities, the pain often returns.

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