How many times have you heard the statements "My ankle hurts more when rain is coming"?  Or cold weather brings ache joints.  Often we have an influx of acute neck or low back pain during a "change in seasons" period.  Is there some validity to the theory that changes in weather can bring changes in joint pain sensitivity or even pathology to joints.  Let us take a look at some of the literature on this theory.  

If you search for "joint pain and weather" in Google, the first listed website that comes up is the Arthritis Foundation (a US organization).  On their website, they have a zip code locator tool to predict the weather conditions and the current arthritis index for the city you enter.  The Index rates the risk from low to extreme based on the current weather conditions.  The information on their page cites a study by Tufts Univeristy from 2007 in which the results showed that for every drop of 10 degrees there is an incremental increase in arthritic pain.  This study was one of the first that showed a relationship between joint pain and weather changes.  

A closer look at this Tufts University study from 2007 further explains this phenomenon.  The study looked at the pain surveys completed by individuals on a nationwide clinical trial.  All of the 200 participants completed an online pain assessment every 2 weeks, completing 7 assessments in total.  In addition, the investigators collected weather reports from the nearest national weather station to each participant.  Looking at temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, precipitation and relative humidity for a 3 day period before each pain asssessment they were able to determine short term ambient values.  And then they were also able to calculate relative change in the weather conditions by looking at the weather parameters of the day of the pain assessment.   

The results showed that there is a perceived increase in pain for each 10 degree incremental drop in temperature.  As barometric pressure tends to change dramatically when there is weather changes, the study also found  increased pain with increases in barometric pressure (though barometric pressure and weather changes is not straightforward).  There were no significant differences noted with the other weather parameters.  The authors explain these findings due to biological properties that have been found in joints.  Normal joint pressure is considered subatmospheric.  In cadaver studies (Wingstrand et al), when joints are equilibrated with the atmospheric pressure, the stability of the joint is compromised.  Furthermore, they found intraarticular joint pressure to be elevated when there is swelling in the joint or defects in the articular cartilage lining the joint.  Changes in temperature can affect the viscosity of the synovial fluid and indirectly affect capillary permeability and inflammatory mediators.  In additon, temperature can affect the contractibility of different tissues that make up the joint.  

This study corroborates the claims made by several osteoarthritis sufferers that pain is increased with changes in weather.  Further studies have been completed finding similar results and expanding on the the effect of sex, anxiety, medication use and geographical location.  What we can take from these studies are that there is proof of an effect on joint pain as the weather changes.  For those that are more sensitive to weather changes, paying attention to the weather reports may become a necessity inorder to counteract the expectant joint pain.  I have often told patients to wear a decorative or fashionable scarf throughout the day if they notice they are reacting to the weather.  For those that can, escaping to a warmer climate may help with the joint pain.  Or maybe it is as simple as turning up the temperature in the house and staying in during those bad weather days.