The Weather And Musculoskeletal Pain
It’s the kind of thing you probably heard your grandparents say: “There’s rain coming, I can feel it in my joints.” It sounds like the kind of claim that can safely be filed under “Old Wives’ Tales”, but clinical studies of weather sensitive pain have shown that people with several chronic pain conditions are able to predict changes in the weather quite accurately.
The falling barometer
Evidence shows that the likely cause of this phenomenon is a change in barometric pressure. The air pressure around us is subject to changes, and weather sensitive pain is usually triggered by a fall in pressure. The effect is more pronounced at the extremes of temperature but most people with weather sensitive pain complain more about cold temperatures than hot temperatures. When the barometer drops and the temperature starts to fall, the air gets heavier. This extra pressure is what is thought to be responsible for the increase in pain. The reason your joints start hurting more when the weather is on the change is that the fall in pressure occurs prior to the weather itself changing. Therefore, you could be sitting out in the yard on a beautiful clear day in summer, but know rain is on the way when your pain starts playing up.
The role of the sympathetic nervous system
Having said that it’s the pressure that causes the problem, that’s not the whole story. If this was true then everyone would feel these effects, but they don’t. It seems that those with weather sensitive pain also have more trouble regulating a portion of their autonomic (automatic) nervous system call the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). We now understand that it an abnormal or overly sensitive response of the SNS can give rise to chronic pain. The autonomic nervous system takes care of automatic body functions like sweating, soft tissue swelling, and your heartbeat; those functions that happen without you having to consciously initiate them. In the case of weather sensitive pain the SNS responds excessively to injuries sustained so the pain reaction may not stop when it should or can be exaggerated from what is normally expected.
Do you have weather sensitive pain?
If you have arthritis, you are likely to be able to forecast a change in the weather because of the increased pain in your joints. Most Fibromyalgia patients also experience this effect throughout their entire musculoskeletal system, not just the joints. In other cases, if the pain becomes severe and prolonged, you might be diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), also known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). These are the conditions most commonly associated with weather sensitive pain, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that other conditions may give rise to the phenomenon in some patients.
Treatments for weather sensitive pain
There are several treatments that can help with weather sensitive pain. Analgesic drugs may be prescribed, and can provide a measure of relief. However, they will not treat the underlying cause, which means that when the effects of the drug wear off your pain returns and you get locked into a cycle of constantly having to take medication. Actually, medications that increase blood flow address the abnormal changes of the SNS and can be much more effective. Other treatment options at Piedmont Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation include injections to quiet down the SNS or to restore tissue, other kinds of nerve blocks, and physical therapy. Treating your whole body to reduce the effects of such aggravating factors such as chronic stress, incorrect posture, gait problems, and poor nutrition also play an important role in helping reduce the causes of your pain. There are some simple measures you can take to help yourself, for example keeping your body – especially joints – comfortably warm and undertaking regular forms of exercise and stretching such as Thai Chi and Pilates.
Winters can be miserable when you have a chronic weather sensitive pain condition, and you may well dread the coming of the rain and cold. Take heart from the knowledge that at PPMR we can show you how to manage your pain more effectively, and provide a range of treatment options to help reduce your pain levels.