Do your joints predict the weather?
Snow! Crisp air! Hot chocolate! There are many things that make the winter months enjoyable. While I may enjoy the brisk cold, there are certainly those that do not – that, in fact, feel pain from it. Most of us have heard of people being able to predict weather changes from the ache in their bones. Now does cold weather actually have a physiological affect on arthritic joints or was my seatmate on the R train just trying to score sympathy points?
As per usual, the research presents differing views. There have been several studies examining the possible relationship between arthritis (both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) and temperature and barometric pressure. Many studies have collected information via daily journals, questionnaires, or pain scales from patients with OA or RA and compared them with daily climate changes. Other studies have measured pressure in cadaveric joints. Results between studies are somewhat contradictory and inconclusive. However, a number of them did find an association between increasing barometric pressure and pain in arthritic joints. A relationship between temperature decreases and joint pain was less substantial. The mechanism of how barometric pressure affects joint pain is still hypothetical at this point.
Dr. Mark Gourley of the National Institute of Health (NIH) likens the phenomenon to that of balloons, representing tissues, surrounding joints. As the air pressure decreases, the balloon expands, applying pressure to the joint. Another theory is one of pseudocysts in the joint, expanding in the same manner and disrupting the joint’s lubrication.
Regardless of the how or why, it is important to address what you can actually control. If you find that the cold increases your pain, plan accordingly. Make use of electric blankets, hot showers, heated car seats, and warm clothing. Our lovely Lisa Desrochers advises patients to cut off the tops of socks to wear around the knee for added warmth. Also, what better way is there to fight joint pain than with good ol’ exercise? Exercising prior to going out into the cold will help loosen your joints and warm up your muscles and core temperature, possibly canceling out the effects from low temperatures.
Often the cold can make us less apt to want to exercise. Decreased sunlight has been known to cause depression. Holiday weight gain can contribute to more pressure on the joint. Both can lead to inactivity. Immobility can cause joint pain all on its own. So make sure to keep moving to combat joint stiffness. Now get out there and enjoy the snow! Well, when it gets here. 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.)