You’ve probably heard somebody predict rain based on their “creaky knees.” And the odds are they were correct.
So, can weather actually make our joints hurt?
Although some people hesitate to believe such a concept, science has explored the idea that weather influences joint pain for centuries. Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates published his book “Air, Water, and Places,” which claimed that wind and rain affect chronic diseases.
Modern society has built an entire industry around the idea that weather affects our health. Every autumn, countless “snowbirds” pack their bags, grab their beach towels and sunblock, and load up the RV, enthusiastically waving goodbye as they chase the sun. Younger people employed in the tourist industry follow closely on their heels, chasing their jobs as they head south for the winter.
Is there scientific evidence behind weather-related joint pain?
For decades, scientists have studied whether certain atmospheric conditions – like temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure – directly cause joint pain or if other variables are at play.
For some time, scientists downgraded the connection between weather and pain to perceptual errors such as confirmation bias or our tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs or hypotheses.
“People’s beliefs about arthritis pain and the weather may tell more about the workings of the mind than of the body,” said the late Stanford psychologist Amos Tversky.
While scientists have yet to understand the full spectrum of mechanisms causing weather-related pain, several predominant theories are emerging, all of which point to changes in weather.
Some research states that the decrease in barometric pressure that precedes a storm triggers joint pain by altering the pressure inside joints. Fibrous structures surround each joint, encapsulating the joint in synovial fluid. Before a storm, the barometric pressure in the atmosphere drops. As the barometric pressure drops, the pressure on the outsides of these joint capsules reduces, making the capsules expand. When the joint expands, it presses on surrounding nerves and tissues, causing pain. Pre-existing irritation in the surrounding nerves and tissues exacerbates this effect.
Other research says that humidity and temperature also might also play a part. A 1997 study in the International Journal of Biometeorology found that higher humidity is linked with increasing pain and stiffness, especially in colder weather.
A decade later, a different study found that weather change is associated with increased online searches for terms related to knee pain, hip pain and arthritis. However, these scientists believe that human behavior can better explain these findings. They hypothesized that individuals simply become more active – and therefore more at risk of injury – as temperatures increase. Injured people are therefore more likely to search the web for information on knee pain, hip pain and arthritis than non-injured people.
So, although it’s apparent that scientists are still sifting through all the variables of the equation, anecdotal evidence and existing empirical research both do indeed indicate a relationship between weather and joint pain.
Now, what to do about it?
You can’t change the weather, but you can still get moving
Staying active is central to healthy joints, which means the primary key to combating weather-related joint pain is to remain active in all kinds of weather.
Exercise options for when the weather is too hot, cold, wet or dry
- Yoga: Yoga has almost too many benefits to count, especially for seniors, and older adults can do yoga anywhere in any weather. Adaptive yoga is an appropriate choice for seniors with mobility impairment.
- Water aerobics: Science finds that water aerobics increases the strength, body composition and blood pressure of older adults. Have access to a pool but no instructor? Many online water exercise options are available, too.
- Tai chi: The combination of tai chi’s slow motion and low-impact movements increases body awareness, improves balance and proprioception, and offers a relaxing indoor activity for older adults.
- Mall walking: Most indoor shopping malls open early so you can do laps before shoppers arrive. Mall walking is a popular activity and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some malls even have groups that meet regularly.
- Pilates: Is the weather keeping you out of the lap pool? Pilates is a total-body toning workout that gives your muscles elongated exercise, similar to swimming.
- Aerobics and step classes: Many senior centers offer step classes and other exercise/dance classes. These are great options because they improve agility and coordination while providing a light cardio workout. Search a curated collection of online workout videos that offers free previews from hundreds of exercise videos. Or visit Senior Fitness With Meredith, NativePath and SilverSneakers to find free exercise videos tailored to older adults.
- Chair workouts: These simple chair-assisted workouts improve lower body strength and balance, making them a great option for older adults with mobility impairment.
- The Nintendo Wii Fit Plus system: This interesting option combines fitness and fun into one package. And even better, people of all ages can enjoy it together. The Wii Fit video games encourage full-body movement in a virtual fitness world. The games can be played with or without a balance board.
Proactive ways to weather the pain
You can’t change the forecast, but you can prepare. Here are several ideas to proactively prepare joints for changes in the weather:
- Ask your doctor if your loved one can take a pain reliever or anti-inflammatory in advance if a storm or cold weather is in the forecast.
- Dress appropriately for cold weather and keep exposed joints warm and toasty with thermal socks, scarves, gloves and vests.
- Keep the cold out of your home by sealing doors and windows and carpeting floors.
- Apply heat to arthritic joints.
- Use a dehumidifier to remove dampness.
- If you can, visit a warm, dry climate during the coldest months of the year to beat the weather.
And as always, consult a medical provider if your loved one experiences significant and persistent joint pain, stiffness, or swelling—rain or shine.