Why do weather changes cause additional pain?

An old fracture suddenly starts to heal because of the cold weather, and rheumatism flares up because of the rain: why does changing weather cause extra pain?

Melinda Weiner Moyer

There are plenty of reasons to hate cold, wet weather, including the potential effects it has on our bodies. People often complain that pain from old injuries, such as broken bones or sprains, and from chronic conditions such as arthritis, worsens when it’s cold or rainy. Hippocrates grumbled about the same thing about 2,500 years ago.

“It’s definitely something I’ve seen in my patients,” said Dr. Jennifer Moriatis Wolf, professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Patients say, ‘I know when it’s going to rain. I can see when it’s going to snow.'”

While doctors agree that such complaints are common, the reasons behind this phenomenon remain unclear. Very little research has been done on this topic, and some of the existing studies have led to confusing and conflicting conclusions. However, other studies seem to suggest that changes in weather can cause swelling and affect the way nerves surrounding injured or inflamed tissues communicate with the brain. This brings back or amplifies pain sensations.

Is there a relationship between weather and pain? It depends who you ask. One study, published in 2016, looked at the relationship between weather and bone fracture pain. The researchers examined data on 2,369 doctor visits after patients had broken bones. At follow-up appointments, the researchers asked the patients how much pain they were experiencing and recorded local weather data for the day, such as temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.

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Patients reported more pain at the one-year follow-up if the barometric pressure — which often drops before storms and cold fronts — was low and if the relative humidity was above 70 percent on the days they were appointed. But the study did not find that hypothermia made the pain worse. Instead, patients surprisingly reported more pain when the outside temperature was above 35 degrees.

Inconsistent results

Studies on the relationship between weather and pain in chronic conditions are sometimes difficult to interpret. In the 2019 study Cloudy with a Chance of Pain, researchers analyzed self-reported pain levels collected daily via smartphones from 2,658 people with chronic pain symptoms over a 15-month period. The researchers examined the patients’ pain scores, which were recorded under different local climatic conditions, and found that their pain worsened with increasing humidity and decreasing atmospheric pressure. However, the study found no link between pain and outside temperature.

A 2007 study found just the opposite: pain from knee osteoarthritis increases with every 10-degree drop in temperature, but pain decreases when air pressure decreases. Another study found no association between changes in temperature and osteoarthritis pain in the hip.

Dr. William J. Dixon, a rheumatologist and public health researcher at the University of Manchester in England, says the findings are likely to be inconsistent because studies tend to be small and “they’re all done in different ways.” Author of the smartphone study. That is, they include people with different conditions, rate pain in different ways, and rate different variables related to weather, so it’s not very surprising that they report different results.

What can you do?

So why does the pain worsen and what can you do about it? While human studies are conflicting, a handful of small animal studies support the idea that weather changes can affect pain. For example, one study found that patients with arthritis showed more pain-related behaviors in environments with lower pressure and lower temperatures.

And while there are still many unanswered questions, experts say they have no doubt about the relationship between weather and pain. “I think that’s absolutely true,” Wolf said.

For people with weather-induced pain, she recommends using a heating pad to warm the affected area. The pain caused by changes in air pressure is more difficult to deal with, Dixon said, although some arthritis patients find relief with compression gloves and braces.

He added that many patients say they wish they could completely escape the triggers of the weather.

A common request he hears in his practice is something like, “Can I get a prescription to move to Spain?”

This article originally appeared on New York times.

Megan Vasquez

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