Is there a link between cold weather and muscle and joint pain?

is there a link between cold weather and aches and pains?Most of us will have heard friends or family say that they suffer from increased aches and pains in muscles and joints during cold, wet and unsettled weather, and some have personal experience of this. Others dismiss it as an old wives’ tale, but it’s a claim that pops up in cultures all over the world, and throughout history.

Hippocrates noted, around 400BC, the effects of winds and rains on chronic diseases in his book Air, Water, and Places (1).

In Asia and China, ‘rheumatism’ is translated as ‘wind wet disease.’ (2).

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania speaks of ‘contagious fogs’ and ‘distemperature’ in which ‘Rheumatic diseases do abound’
(2.1.70-91).

This is a good point to note that ‘rheumatism’ is an old-fashioned term for aches and pains anywhere in the body. It is no longer used in medical literature, but today ‘Rheumatology’ means the study of joint diseases, including the many types of arthritis.

The types of conditions and diseases which often said to be associated with ‘weather pain’ are indeed those which cause chronic pain in the muscles and joints.

These include rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, phantom limb pain, scar pain, gout, trigeminal neuralgia, and non-specific low back pain (3). Weather patterns that have been studied in relation to pain are: temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, humidity, thunderstorms, sunshine, and increased ionization of the air.

So is there a link between the weather and muscle and joint pain? A number of studies have been conducted, with mixed results. It’s challenging for scientists to analyse something so subjective as peoples’ experience of pain, when other factors are undoubtedly involved, such as level of exercise, mood, and diet. Also, many arthritic conditions have a cyclical nature of flare and remission. Add this to the variable patterns observed in the weather, and it is likely that at some point these will match up. It’s human nature to look for patterns and to notice coincidences, and some of the more sceptical reports believe that this is what’s happening (4). However our own clinical experience tells us that there is a link between muscle and joint pain and weather conditions, and it’s worth taking a look at some specific studies to try to find out what’s really happening.

Recent research has focused on the possibility that changes in atmospheric pressure may be responsible for increased pain in those with arthritic conditions or chronic pain, specifically just before or during a spell of low pressure, and the cold and damp conditions that accompany it. As air pressure drops, air molecules and gases expand. The theory is that low pressure causes gases and fluids in our joints to expand in a similar way, causing pressure on nerves and sensitising them to pain. In addition, in an area of microtrauma, such as an arthritic joint or scarred muscle, tissues of different densities may expand and contract in different ways to those beside them, increasing stiffness and pain (3). There is no conclusive evidence to prove this theory. A 1995 study claimed of 557 people concluded that ‘changes in barometric pressure are the main link between weather and pain’ (5). A population-based survey of 2491 people between the ages of 25 and 60 living in the North West UK in 2005-6 found that

‘pain reporting was higher on days with the lowest average pressure, but the relationship with pressure was inconsistent and there was no evidence of any trend in the relationship. The strongest relationship with pain reporting was with hours of sunshine and daily average temperature.’ (6)

The survey discovered that

‘Participants who completed the questionnaire on days when the temperature and hours of sunshine were highest were significantly less likely to report any pain and were approximately half as likely to report pain that was chronic and widespread.’

In general, we feel happier and more relaxed when the weather is warm and sunny and perhaps less likely to notice or report pain.

We hunch ourselves up when we are cold, making muscles tighter and less mobile. When it’s sunny we have more exposure to vitamin D, which fortifies our bones and cartilage. Studies have shown that osteoarthritis patients with low levels of Vitamin D experience a worsening of their symptoms (7). We also know that warm muscles are longer and more supple – this is why we ‘warm up’ before exercising to avoid injury, and apply heat to sore muscles to relieve pain.

Packing up and moving somewhere with a warm, sunny climate is not the answer, although it can help temporarily. Evidence suggests that when people move to a warmer climate, they feel better for the first few months, ‘but then their body acclimates to that weather pattern and they start feeling just like they did before.’ (9) So don’t to pack your bags just yet, but there are actions that you can take to help minimise aches and pains through the winter months.

Crucially, on warm, sunny days, people are much more likely to exercise. The human body is built to move, and regular exercise is the best thing we can do for our general health. This is especially true for those who have arthritis and other painful conditions of the muscles and joints (8), though it is important to do a level of exercise that is appropriate for you. If you are already in pain, the idea of exercising may seem overwhelming, but gentle movement of any kind is better than no movement at all.

Regular exercise will ease stiffness, strengthen muscles, improve circulation, help to control weight – putting less strain on joints, help maintain bone density, improve sleep and boost mood. All of which help to prevent pain.

After a fantastically warm and sunny year, the nights have well and truly drawn in, there’s a chill in the air, and many of us are preparing to go into hibernation on the sofa, with a cosy blanket and a hot chocolate. It’s great to keep warm, but don’t be afraid to complement this with regular exercise and movement to help you feel fitter, healthier and happier, and stave off those aches and pains. And try to get outside on those rare sunny days!

So, while there is no definitive evidence as to whether the weather can influence musculoskeletal pain, there are many anecdotal reports that it is the case. What do you think? We’d be interested to read your comments.

References

1. Tversky, Amos, 1995, ‘On the belief that arthritis pain is related to the weather’ http://www.pnas.org/content/93/7/2895.full.pdf

2. Smedslund, Geir et al, 2009, ‘Does the Weather Really Matter…’ http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/art.24729/pdf

3. Jamison, Robert N, 1996, ‘Influence of Weather on Report of Pain’ https://www.brainlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Influence-of-Weather-on-Report-of-Pain.pdf

4. Redelmeier, D, 2005, ‘Does damp or wet weather really make arthritis pain worse? If so, how?’, Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-damp-or-wet-weather/

5. Wikipedia, 2014 ‘Rheumatism’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rheumatism#.22Rheumatism.22_and_weather

6. Macfarlane, Tatiana V et al, 2009, ‘Whether the weather influences pain? Results from the EpiFunD study in North West England’ http://rheumatology.oxfordjournals.org/content/49/8/1513.full

7. ‘Taking Charge of Arthritis,’ p.192, Reader’s Digest Health Solutions.

8. ‘Why is Exercise Important?’ Arthritis Research UK http://www.arthritisresearchuk.org/arthritis-information/arthritis-and-daily-life/exercise-and-arthritis/why-is-exercise-important.aspx

9. Nazario, B, ‘Do Your Aches, Pains Predict Rain?’, MedicineNet.com, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52133

Comments

  1. I have proof for me that there is definitely a link between cold weather and muscle pain. For 19 years I was told by the NHS I had ME, now they say it is myotonic dystrophy.

    The muscle pain in my legs, glutes/perifmous (butt) is always worse in cold weather. Cold for me to cause pain is anything under about 18 degrees celcius. On warmer days my muscle pain is about 3/10 with my anti inflammatory medication, but on cold days it is 6/10 with anti inflammatories.

    Many doctors over the years have told me it is just that as we are on holiday somewhere warm and relaxed the stress and everyday life problems have gone, so that is why the muscles ache less.

    However, this simply is not true, when I holiday in the UK with my family, Legoland, Blackpool, London etc then my muscles hurt just the same as being back in Plymouth. But when we holiday in Spain / Florida my muscles improve significantly within 48 hours of arriving in the warmer climate.

    I believe this must be due to the air pressure making a difference to the way the muscles react, and also the temperature.

  2. I certainly find that I find that when winter comes around and the nip in the air gets felt, I do find that I have to consciously relax my muscles that I don’t usually notice in warmer weather.. Using a heating blanket makes a strong contrast with tensed and relaxed muscles and lower back pain. I would conclude that the constant change in artificial temperature climates as air-conditioning, heating etc does without a doubt cause a bit of confusion in muscular contractions and possible pain.

  3. Zahedi

    Thank you for publishing above article, I have been having serious upper back muscle pain in the last three years as soon as temperature drops below 10 degrees and specially if it is raining.

    I will keep a diary if you are interested to see if I can see the low pressure link.

    Many thanks

  4. Sue Key

    I was recently fitted with a neurostimulator in my abdomen to help control nerve pain sustained in my left leg after a lot or surgery. It seemed to be working well until our weather here in The Blue Mountains of NSW Australia turned really cold and I am now in a lot of pain most of the time. I am trying to keep it as warm as possible which sort of helps a bit. Many years ago I suffered greatly from knee problems which were addressed by an Orthopaedic Surgeon in Sydney who told me that the changes in atmospheric pressure absolutely affect injured joints etc,. So I definitely believe it. I used to be able to predict when it was going to rain. Seriously.

    • Muscle Clinic

      Hi Sue, thanks for sharing this, it’s good to hear from you from the other side of the world. So many agree with you in saying that their musculoskeletal pain is affected by the weather, we are convinced there’s something in it. Keep warm! Charlotte and David

      • Sue Key

        Thank you so much Charlotte and David.
        I can’t wait for warmer weather. I was so close to going back on my morphine which is the whole reason I agreed to he fitted with the IPG, to get off it after 7 years!! I have just been trying to keep my leg as warm as possible. I did also read that when your body gets really cold, blood is drawn from your extremities to keep your “core & vital organs” protected. Makes sense I suppose.
        This is a great Site. Thank you. I have been doing such a lot of research on this and now I know I, “WE” are right.
        Thanks again.

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