Maybe your grandmother knew a storm was coming when her knees started to hurt. Or you’ve felt your own joints ache when the temperature outside drops.
It’s common to blame joint pain flare-ups on changes in the weather, and many doctors believe people can feel more joint pain on cold, rainy days. But the research on the connection between the two isn’t clear.
Barometric pressure -- or the pressure of the air -- can affect joints, but humidity, precipitation, and temperature are also at play. That makes it tricky for scientists to pinpoint exactly what it is about the weather that leads some people to report more pain when it’s cold, rainy, or humid.
How Weather May Affect Joints
Scientists have done many studies on joint pain and weather over the years, but so far, none can say for sure what the connection is. Part of the problem is the studies themselves -- many have used surveys of just a small number of people, which isn’t a very reliable way to measure a link.
Still, there are a few theories about the relationship. One is that people with joint pain, especially arthritis, may be sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. How? It could be that when the cartilage that cushions the bones inside a joint is worn away, nerves in the exposed bones might pick up on changes in pressure.
Another idea: Changes in barometric pressure may make your tendons, muscles, and any scar tissue expand and contract, and that can create pain in joints affected by arthritis. Low temperatures can also make the fluid inside joints thicker, so they feel stiffer.
You might also feel more pain when the weather keeps you from moving around as much as you typically do. People tend to stay indoors and lounge around more when it’s cold and rainy outside, and inactive joints can get stiff and painful.
What Kind of Weather?
Several studies have tried to pinpoint the kind of weather changes that affect joint pain, but the findings are all over the map.
In one survey of 200 people with osteoarthritis in their knee, researchers found that every 10-degree drop in temperature -- as well as low barometric pressure --corresponded to a rise in arthritis pain. More recently, however, a Dutch study of 222 people with osteoarthritis of the hip found that over 2 years, people said their pain and stiffness got worse with rising barometric pressure and humidity.
Another group of researchers took a look at medical records of more than 11 million Medicare visits and matched dates to local weather reports. They didn’t see any link between weather changes and joint pain at all. Two recent Australian studies -- one on knee pain and one on lower back pain -- also found no connection to weather change.
But even though the science isn’t clear, flare-ups when the weather turns are very real for many people with joint pain. Some people’s bodies may just be more sensitive to changes in the weather. Many people say they find relief in warmer climates, but again, there’s no scientific proof that it will ease your aches.
How to Ease Weather-Related Joint Pain
You don’t have to pick up and move to a different climate. There’s plenty you can do at home to relieve joint pain.
- When temperatures drop, try to keep yourself warm. Take warm showers or baths, dress in layers during the day (including gloves and warm socks), use an electric blanket at night, or crank up the heat inside your home.
- Try a paraffin bath. It’s a small machine that melts paraffin wax. You dip your hands and feet in, and then you let the wax harden on your skin. Your body absorbs the heat, which may soothe achy joints. You can also use a heating pad on sore spots.
- Ask your doctor about pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Keep a healthy weight and stay active. Try exercise that’s gentle on the joints, like yoga or swimming. That will help you build up muscle and bone strength. If you go outside to exercise, limber up first with some gentle stretches.
- Don’t strain your joints if you don’t have to. Let someone else lift those heavy boxes.
- Make sure you take care of your health in general, like with good nutrition and getting enough sleep.