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Weather and Pain - What is the relationship?

The skies are blue, the temperatures are comfortable, but you have developed again that nagging pain in your shoulder, your knee, your hip.  It can be any joint.  You have not suffered a trauma; rather this pain issue just seems to develop.  

What’s the issue?  Why is there a pattern?  

As a chiropractor it is not uncommon for there to be days wherein the bulk of patients that present for care, be it a new issue or continued care, to comment that this day is particularly painful.  Why does this tend to happen?  

There is usually one overriding factor that ALL of these patients are exposed to that is influencing their experience of pain – the weather.  

There has been research into this pattern of weather and pain.  It is not necessarily settled science, but there is generally agreed upon factors that likely contribute to a person’s experience of pain with changing weather patterns.  The general and most likely factor is barometric pressure.  The weight of the surrounding air exerting pressure against our bodies.  

I know this sounds odd on first examination.  Believe it or not, there is a weight of the atmosphere that surrounds our Earth on our bodies.  At sea level this pressure is 14.7 pound per square inch (psi).  This is a weight that is exerted on our bodies in all directions.  Up, down, right and left, it places a load on our bodies.  This weight, or pressure, is delivered through our bodies to our joints as well.  

Our movable joints are very interesting structures.  There are the ends of two bones that are covered by a glass smooth surface called cartilage (hyaline cartilage to be exact).  These bone ends and their cartilage surfaces are then surrounded by a soft tissue balloon called the joint capsule that is lined by a layer of tissue called the synovium.  This synovium secretes a fluid called synovial fluid that fills this capsule and causes the two bones that are capped by smooth cartilage to move and slid past one another like smooth wet ice on smooth wet ice.  The amount of friction is low so the joint moves freely and easily.  

When a joint becomes inflamed this joint capsule will become inflamed there will be the presence of several of the cardinal signs of inflammation, most notably pain and swelling.  

Remember that I referred above to the joint capsule as being like a balloon.  Let’s have a little thought experiment here for a moment.  Imagine a balloon in a large glass jar.  I have a pump attached to this closed glass jar with an inflated balloon inside.  What will happen if I start pumping more air into the jar?  Yes, the balloon will start to get smaller as the pressure of the air in the jar increases and the balloon will get smaller so the pressure inside the balloon will try to match the pressure outside the balloon.  Let’s pump some of the air out of the balloon now.  What will happen?  Yes, the exact opposite.  The balloon will become bigger.  The pressure of the air in the jar goes down so the balloon will become bigger as the air inside attempts to match the pressure of the air on the outside of the balloon.  

So now let’s look at the joint capsule.  Again, think of it as a balloon.  What happens if the atmospheric pressure goes down (i.e., low pressure front) starts to enter an area?  The air in the atmosphere (jar) is being “pumped out” and the balloon (joint capsule) will try to enlarge so as to match the pressure on the outside of the capsule.  Now this is happening on a very small scale, but it still happens.  The capsule will start to enlarge and the joint capsule will be stretched.  There are pain receptors in the joint capsule; because the capsule is inflamed the pain receptors will start to fire.  Pain will be produced and the message sent to your brain.  

What to do about it?  

Moving to Florida or Arizona isn’t always practical.  Also, there is barometric pressure in these places as well so you will not be immune to the pain.  Here’s a short list of things to attempt:  

  • Stay warm – this does not necessarily change atmospheric pressure, but it does tend to influence joint level inflammation.  Keep the house warm and try to dress in layers if you are outside.  Warm compresses on joints will also sooth the surrounding muscles and help with the overall sense of pain.
  • Keep moving – exercise and general activity help with joint inflammation.  Movement disperses the edema (swelling) and helps keep the capsule (balloon) from expanding with the change in pressure.
  • Pain, in most cases, is temporary.  Try to work through it the best you can.  Yes, it will be uncomfortable, but like we like to say in Wisconsin . . . “don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes, it will change.

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