Watch the Weather to Reduce Your Pain
If you suffer from arthritis, or from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy, sinus pain, or headaches, you may have noticed that weather can affect your level of pain.
Our family practice doctors in Delray Beach have heard from many of our patients that their pain seems worse on some days than others, depending on the weather. We don’t dismiss that observation, because many studies have shown that changes in the weather do impact pain levels in many people.
And a new study, which focused specifically on arthritis pain, tends to confirm that, on humid, windy days, people with chronic pain conditions are 20 percent more likely to feel an increase in their discomfort than on dry days.
Scientists from the University of Manchester in the UK had more than 13,000 people record their pain symptoms on a smartphone app, which the researchers then correlated with the weather in their area using GPS data. The 14-month study included 5.1 million pain reports from participants.
Researchers found that days with high humidity, lower barometric pressure, and stronger winds—in that order—were more likely to be associated with what the researchers termed “high pain days.” Dry days were the least likely to increase pain, and researchers found no association between pain and temperature or rainfall.
The study (called “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain”) was important because it was one of the largest to date to track the effects of weather on pain, and also because it used real-time weather data from subjects’ actual locations to analyze their reports on their pain.
Stephen Simpson, director of research at the non-profit organization Versus Arthritis, which funded the study, said the findings were important to people who have chronic pain conditions because such complaints can be difficult to mitigate with drugs.
“Supporting effective ways of self-managing pain can make all the difference for people with arthritis, helping them to get and stay in work, to be full members of the community, and simply to belong,” he said.
Study author and professor of Digital Epidemiology Will Dixon said the results could allow sufferers not only to better plan activities for lower pain days but help researchers better discern the causes of pain.
“The dataset will also provide information to scientists interested in understanding the mechanisms of pain, which could ultimately open the door to new treatments,” he said.
But what’s the cause?
Knowing there’s a connection between changes in the weather, however, doesn’t explain what causes this phenomenon. While the specific reason remains elusive, several theories have been proposed.
For example, when a weather front approaches, barometric pressure in the atmosphere usually accompanies it. Some researchers believe that lower barometric pressure causes the tissues in the body—including those surrounding joints—to expand, thus triggering pain. Low barometric pressure may also increase the thickness of joint fluids, making them stiffer and more likely to trigger discomfort.
Another theory is that bad weather reduces physical activity, causing muscles and tendons to stiffen up, thus increasing pain, or that the mind-body connection plays a role, given that people’s moods tend to be higher on sunny days than on cloudy ones.
But this is largely guesswork. Complicating the issue is the fact that many people with chronic pain seem to experience no weather-related changes in their pain levels at all.
One 2014 study published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that 67 percent of those with osteoarthritis surveyed said their pain was weather-sensitive, while the rest said the weather had no impact on their pain.
What can you do?
Knowing that certain types of weather increases your pain can offer at least a modicum of control over your condition.
Ideally, you should keep a pain diary. At a minimum, try to discern a connection between the weather and your levels of pain. Other factors you might include could be stress, diet, and exercise. This could give you a blueprint for mitigating your pain triggers as much as possible.
Of course, you can’t control the weather, but if you find that you feel worse on windy, humid days, you could try to schedule more strenuous physical activities around those types of days.
And if your pain is interfering with your daily life, or has worsened, see us. There are many drug and non-drug options available to relieve your symptoms and help improve your quality of life.