Do your joints hurt more in rain or cold weather? New research says no

Do your joints hurt more in rain or cold weather? New research says no

It’s a running joke among millions who live with arthritis that they are human weather vanes, capable of predicting rain or temperature changes based on flare-ups in their joints.

“I don’t have that ability, but I definitely do know when it’s cold because my wrist hurts,” says 28-year-old Jake Halpin.

Since falling and injuring his wrist, the Sydney-based communications director has noticed that when his air conditioner is on overnight, turning his bedroom into a “lovely cold ice box”, he wakes with more acute pain.

And Halpin’s not alone. In fact, two in three people who suffer knee, hip or hand osteoarthritis say that changes in the weather trigger their pain. But a new metanalysis, the first of its kind, puts the belief to bed.

Researchers from the University of Sydney analysed the data of more than 15,000 people from around the world with musculoskeletal conditions, looking for patterns between their pain and the weather.

Crucially, instead of responding to leading questions like “When it rains, does your knee pain get worse?” the participants in these long-term studies were not asked about the weather at all. They were simply asked about their pain intermittently over extended periods. The researchers then looked at the weather, including humidity, pressure, precipitation and temperature, around periods of increased pain to track the relationship.

Changes in weather did not increase the risk of knee, hip or lower back pain symptoms.

High temperatures combined with low humidity, however, seemed to double the risk of a gout flare.

The authors of the paper, published in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism, suggested this was because of differences in the biological mechanisms underlying gout, a type of inflammatory arthritis that causes pain and swelling in the joints.

“It is possible that warm and dry weather may lead to dehydration, increased uric acid concentration and increased crystal deposition in people with gout, resulting in increased risk of gout flares,” they wrote.

Hypotheses attempting to explain reports of increased pain, include the suggestion that a decrease in air pressure allows muscles, tendons, and other tissues around the joints to expand, placing pressure on the joints and leading to pain.

“These are theories,” says the study’s lead author, Professor Manuela Ferreira from Sydney Musculoskeletal Health. “But the thing is, it doesn’t look like the changes in temperature are enough to actually trigger that mechanism.”

If there is no association with the weather, why do so many people with pain perceive otherwise?

“There might be a link between hot and cold temperature or humidity and people’s behaviour,” says Ferreira.

For instance, depending on the weather, people might be less inclined to move from the couch, or away from the desk, they might hold their body differently leading to more stiffness, or they might exercise more or less. Weather can also affect our mood.

These changes in behaviour and mood influence pain and how people cope with it, Ferreira explains.

She adds that it is time to debunk the myth: “We couldn’t see anything and these are the most prevalent, musculoskeletal conditions. So I would be confident in saying that I think we need to move on from that belief.”

Professor Rachelle Buchbinder, from the school of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, says it is another study that has failed to find an association between weather and musculoskeletal symptoms.

But she also understands, first-hand, the experience of patients. “I have osteoarthritis in my feet and I do notice it much more in colder weather,” she says.

She is “not certain” the study is the final say on the matter, suggesting there is still much more to understand about the weather and symptoms though management of the condition would likely stay the same.

Ferreira says that management and prevention is ultimately the point: instead of focusing on what we can’t control, like the weather, we ought to focus on factors that we can control.

“Looking to increase strength and reduce body weight is beneficial for many of symptoms mentioned,” says Alasdair Dempsey, an associate professor of Exercise Science at Murdoch University.

Physical activity, sleep and our mental health state are also modifiable factors that affect the risk and experience of chronic pain, Ferreira says. “Focus on those and enjoy the hot weather and the cold.”

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