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Are you the Weather Girl?

Does your joint pain predict the weather?

Change in Barometric Pressure & Joint Pain
by Dr Paul Park

Do your knees tell you a storm is coming?

For many years, our grandparents have been able to predict when a storm was approaching. They predict this from the knee pain they get prior to the storm. In weather-forecasting, change in weather usually indicates a change in barometric pressure. Joint pain due to a change in barometric pressure is common in people whose joints have been weakened and compromised with any type of joint diseases or surgeries. This is most likely to be osteoarthritis, knee and/or hip replacements.

Not only the weather changes the barometric pressure. Scientists have done many studies on the relationship between the two, but the connection is still unclear. There are a few theories which explain this relationship scientifically that both scientists and health clinicians use to give a reasonable explanation.

Change in weather affecting joints

A Barometer measures Barometric Pressure

Sensory nerves in weakened and compromised joints are more prone to trigger pain due to change in barometric pressure, especially when the barometric pressure drops. In the weather forecast, when the low-pressure weather system moves in, it is usually an indication of rain or storm coming in. Lower pressure means there is less air pressure pushing against our body from the outside. Based on Fluid Dynamics 101, gases move from a high to low pressure system. Since the pressure in the joints stay relatively the same, decreasing barometric pressure creates many possible changes to our joints. One possibility could be that lowering the barometric pressure may expand our tendons, muscles and any scar tissues around arthritic joints creating pain.

Another factor that can happen is low temperature, which may occur at the same time as a drop in a barometric pressure. Lower temperatures increase the thickness of the fluid in the joints which makes them more stiff resulting in an increase in pain. The secondary factor is human behaviour. As a low-pressure system brings in undesirable weather, people tend to stay more indoors and become less active. As a result, more painful joints. Together, atmospheric conditions which increase swelling in the joint, plus human behaviour lead to joint discomfort.

Altitude affecting joints

Joint pain at high altitude is most likely due to inactivity.

As we go on a long aeroplane flight, most of us notice of our feet swelling. They do not swell in the same way when you are seated at home or in the office over time. It is because there is less barometric pressure at high altitude which also causes your joints to expand and puts less pressure on our joints. However, we need to be significantly high enough for low barometric pressure to influence our joints. Also, since the aeroplane cabins are pressurized, we are less likely to experience joint pain compared to when we are on the ground experiencing weather changes. In addition, joint pain from flights is most likely due to inactivity in aeroplane because people are more prone to be seated during the flight.

Pain Management

Movement is key to helping arthritic joints

For some patients, they will experience severe pain from barometric pressure changes. In this circumstance, because barometric is the cause the joint pain, we need to find some way to equalize the pressure around the painful joint. Some of the pain managements that are recommended by the experts are:

  • Keeping your joint/s warm: since the temperature drops with a drop of barometric pressure, keeping your joint/s warm will help them feel less stiff and painful.
  • Helpful supplements: some supplements like omega 3 and glucosamine-chondroitin are very helpfully for maintaining healthy joints. In arthritic joints, low vitamin D may be playing a role in painful joint. Talk to your clinician about taking vitamin D supplements.
  • Compression brace: compression braces are made to reduce pain; in addition, they apply equal pressure around the joint and prevent joints from swelling.
  • Movement is the key: most patients who experience this have arthritic joints. The key to reducing swelling and pain in arthritic joints is exercise and movement.

Overall, the human body experiences changes in barometric pressure differently. People with joint diseases such as arthritis will be the ones most likely to experience the changes. And it does not have to be knee pain; the pain can be in the hips or hands. However, since the knee joint is the joint most affected by osteoarthritis, people commonly complain about their knees from a change in barometric pressure. These joint pains are easily maintained if you know what to do before the big storm comes!