Achy joints telling you the weather is changing?

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October 12, 2020
osteopath, chiropractor or physio
Osteopath, Chiropractor or Physiotherapist
November 20, 2020

Can your body tell you when the weather is changing?

On days like today, patients will tell me that the rain makes their joints hurt, however, are they really more sensitive to the weather or is this just an old wives tale?

For thousands of years, scientists have been trying to understand how the weather can affect arthritic pain, Hippocrates, in 400BC wrote about the effect of wind and rain on chronic disease, suggesting that it was the natural environment around a person, that would affect their health. Whilst there is still no scientific agreement as to how the weather changes pain levels, there are several theories which support patient's experiences.


Joint pain & barometric pressure

Barometric pressure is the change in air pressure, as it drops, gases and fluids expand. The body's natural response to damage is inflammation, which involves an increase in the blood volume to a damaged area (as part of the natural repair process).

Some scientists believe that the fluids in a joint expand in low pressure increases the pressure on nerves and damaged joints making them more sensitive to pain. An increase in air pressure will reduce the expansion of the gases and fluids relieving the tissues under pressure and reducing the pain. Some people will experience a similar reaction when they are flying as cabin pressure is reduced and their legs may swell (this can also be due to lack of movement).

Another theory suggests that as arthritis involves the erosion of the cartilage in joints (which acts as a cushion for the bones), exposing the nerves in the ends of the bones which react to the change in pressure making those who have arthritis more susceptible to the change in pressure. In addition, low pressure can result in the synovial fluid in a joint becoming thicker and therefore the joints can feel stiffer.
Barometer 3

Activity levels change as the weather does.

When the seasons change so do our activities, we are more inclined to go outside and get active when the weather is warm and sunny, playing games, going for walks or gardening.

Once the weather changes, we are less inclined to get out, our natural instincts are to hunker down in our "caves" and to not expose ourselves to the adverse weather conditions. This is part of our in-built survival instinct. So rain or cold spells encourage many of us to stay indoors, and as a result to choose more sedentary activities.

Once we stop moving outside, we are confined to a smaller space and so tend to engage in less gross movement activities (such as running, jumping, climbing, walking), instead of spending more time on fine movement activities - such as crafts like knitting or modelling, or gaming, working or surfing the internet on a laptop or phone, enjoying baking or DIY.

This reduction in the use of our large action muscles, and greater use of the smaller muscles and can lead to repetitive strains as we are less likely to stretch out and reverse the effects of our focused tasks and hobbies. Less movement can result in an increase in stiffness and make us more aware generally of aches and pains.

Autumn dog walk 2

Have we learnt to expect pain when the weather changes?

Maybe because we tend to be less active as the weather becomes less inviting, we expect to feel our joints hurting more, or we maybe we have heard our relatives comment on how their aches and pains have got worse with weather changes, we anticipate joint pain, and when it occurs we naturally associate it with the weather, even if it is caused by something else.

Maybe because we associate bad weather with a change in our activities, a reduction in the amount of sunshine we see leads us to expect that pain will follow. Seasonal effectiveness disorder (SAD) is now a well-recognised mental health disorder, which tends to become more apparent during the winter months. Whilst it is not fully understood, it is thought that the hypothalamus in the brain may stop working effectively due to lack of sunlight. The result is that more melatonin (which makes you feel sleepy), and less serotonin (which affects mood, appetite, and sleep) are produced, which can lead to lethargy and feelings of depression.

SAD is also affected by the impact of lower light levels on our sleep cycles and our internal body clock (our circadian rhythms), and this can also mean a change in our energy levels, and lead to depression, a reduction in exercise and physical activity and a build-up in aches and pains through lack of movement.

Tips to reduce the impact of weather on your pain.

  1. Be prepared
    Dress appropriately for the weather, you will feel more inclined to get out and move if you have the right clothing.
  2. Get moving
    The more active you are, the less stiffness you will feel, your mood will be better, and therefore you will notice your aches and pains less.
  3. Drink plenty of fluids
    If you are dehydrated you may be more sensitive to pain.
  4. Eat a well-balanced diet
    Vitamin D deficiency is common in those with arthritis and is hard to come by in the UK in winter. Arthritis Research UK has some helpful hints and tips on food to avoid, and food that can help arthritic pain.
  5. Be sociable
    Pain can be very depressing and isolating. Try to meet up with friends and family, it will help to distract you from the aches and pains you are experiencing. Go for a walk or meet up for an online chat.
  6. Try light therapy
    Special lights cold lightboxes can help to mimic the exposure to sunlight, stimulating the hypothalamus to produce more serotonin and less melatonin, and will help manage your sleep cycles and circadian rhythms better.
  7. Book an appointment to see your osteopath Treatment can help to reduce stiffness and reduce inflammation, then you will feel more inclined to move and to get out in the autumn sunshine #osteopathyworks

  8. If you would like to know more, call me on 07474 521 329