During the recent downpours and thunderstorms, a significant number of our patients reported increased join and musculoskeletal pains. Some arthritis sufferers claim that they can predict weather conditions with accuracy surpassing local meteorologists. In spite of widespread beliefs in weather change-induced pain, scientific evidence on the matter is sparse and non-conclusive. During the conducted studies, some patients with chronic pain claimed increased pain on rainy days, some before the weather changes, while others have not experienced any correlation to the weather pattern.
Although there are limited clinical trials, and their data is not statistically significant, physicians and physical therapists working with patients who have arthritis have to consider changes in pain behavior in their clinical treatments. One leading theory points out how atmospheric conditions, such as barometric pressure and humidity, can affect symptoms of painful conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or migraine headaches. Barometric pressure is the pressure exerted by the air around us. To illustrate the phenomenon, imagine the barometric pressure as the compression stockings that are worn on our lower extremities. The high barometric pressure pushes against the body, and prevents tissues from expanding, similar to the way of a compression stocking. If the barometric pressure drops before a storm and the compression subsides, the internal expansion around an arthritic joint may irritate the nerves, causing pain.
According to J. Parvizi, MD., PhD, director of clinical research at the Rothman Institute at Jefferson, and associate professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, the pressure change in the environment causes the pressure inside of the join, and the amount of fluid to fluctuate. This especially effects patients with arthritic joints, as they have less cartilage to provide cushioning. Change in barometric pressure may also cause loss of equilibrium in body pressure, which can result in sensitization of nerve endings.
Psychosomatic nature of pain complaints should also be considered. On rainy and gloomy days, we lack vigor and fell more anxious and depressed. With the return of the sunny weather, spirits tend to rise and we start to feel better. By going outdoors and resuming our activity level, we produce more endorphins, and our brain tends to override an unpleasant sensations of pain. During weather changes, some patients will need to increase their pain medication, but they should still try to take proactive steps to manage their pain with alternative measures. So, to our patients, our advice is to keep moving, go to the gym, or exercise at home to loosen up stiff joints. Always try to prevent swelling by using compression stockings, make sure to elevate painful joints, and use ice to reduce inflammation. If the rainy weather keeps you indoors, lighten up your diet, reduce sodium intake, and don’t let the weather affect your mood! Be patient, the sun and barometric pressure are both going to be up soon!
Maggie Garbiec, PTA
Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (2008, June 3). “People With Joint Pain Can Really Forecast” Retrieved July 2.