One common question patients often ask themselves is if cold weather actually makes their arthritic joints ache? Is there any scientific merit behind what many either consider just a wives’ tale or simply common sense?
According to various research studies, I’m not alone. Studies suggest that people who have arthritis often assert that weather conditions do have an impact on the severity of their arthritic pain (Laborde et al, 1986).
Despite our strongly held convictions with respect to the question as to whether or not weather impacts the severity of joint or arthritis pain, let’s look at some research that tests this hypothesis. In a recent article published in the American Journal of Medicine (McAlindon et al, 2007), the researchers studied 200 geographically isolated individuals with osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis) of the knee joint.
Not surprisingly, their study results confirmed that both cold weather, as well as increases in atmospheric pressure, are both associated with an increase in joint pain severity. What’s more, is that these researchers were also able to use these findings to offer a plausible explanation as to why cold weather and increases in barometric pressure have an impact on arthritis pain severity.
Why Does Cold Weather Worsen Arthritic Pain?
To answer this question, the researchers viewed the knee-joint from an engineering perspective. As such, they hypothesized that cold temperatures, for example, could have a direct effect on the viscosity of synovial fluid or indirect effects on inflammatory mediators. Basically, this means that cold temperatures could increase the viscosity or thickness of your joint fluid in much the same way that cold temperatures would affect the oil that you use to lubricate your car’s engine.
How Do Changes in Atmospheric Pressure Affect Arthritis Pain?
Atmospheric pressure can be measured with a device known as a barometer. Changes in barometric pressure over the short-term can be used to predict changes in weather patterns. Meteorologists, scientists who study weather, know that a drop in barometric or atmospheric pressure often precedes storms. People who suffer from arthritis pain also often claim that they can tell when a storm is brewing…
In terms of how barometric pressure affects your arthritis pain, they had some ideas in this regard as well. They cited cadaver studies which show that the intraarticular pressure (pressure inside of your joint) is actually much lower than atmospheric pressure. One often used analogy is to think of a balloon inside of a barometric device. Much like when the pressure outside of the balloon drops, the balloon will expand in the same regard as the tissue inside of joints. This expansion or swelling of joint tissue can cause nerve irritation resulting in a worsening of pain.
Consequently, decreases in barometric pressure may actually affect your joint biomechanics. Now that we’ve established the association between cold weather, decreases in barometric pressure, and joint pain, where does that leave us? If you are one of the millions of Canadians or Americans who suffer from Arthritis, now that winter is upon us, there are two simple options for minimizing the impact of weather on your arthritis pain.
Despite the aforementioned research studies, intuitive logic, as well as patient’s own experiences with arthritis pain, the association between atmospheric conditions and arthritis pain remains fairly controversial in the scientific literature (Figueiredo EC et al, 2011).
However, regardless of the challenges involved with research methodology for studying this association as well as the ongoing controversy, researchers from Brazil published a review article summarizing the currently available evidence (Figueiredo EC et al, 2011).
From their review of the literature, they noted associations between cold weather, low atmospheric pressure, and high humidity exacerbating pain and stiffness in patients with osteoarthritis. Further, they cited research suggesting that urban as opposed to rural settings were propitious for those with arthritis.
In contrast, they noted that for those with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, high atmospheric pressure actually worsened pain symptoms.
The simplest solution, particularly if you live in a very cold and humid climate, is to minimize your exposure to the outdoors–as much as possible. At the very least, be cognizant of how your exposure to the cold affects your joint pain. Secondly, if possible, this association between cold weather and joint pain gives you one more excuse to head south and take a warm vacation particularly to a warm and dry climate like Arizona.
- McAlindon T, Formica M, Schmid CH, Fletcher J. Changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature influence osteoarthritis pain. Am J Med. 2007 May;120(5):429-34.Laborde JM,
- Dando WA, Powers MJ. Influence of weather on osteoarthritis. Soc Sci Med. 1986; 23(6):549-554.
- Figueiredo EC, Figueiredo GC, Dantas RT. Influence of meteorological elements on osteoarthritis pain: a review of the literature. Rev Bras Reumatol. 2011 Dec;51(6):622-628.