Like all terrestrial plants and animals, human beings have adapted to our environment. That includes the day and night cycle, seasonal changes and shifting weather patterns. It should not be that surprising to learn that our bodies also respond to changes to our environment.  For many people, weather and chronic pain are inextricably entwined.

Chronic pain is a part of the lives of more than 25 million Americans, while another 17.6 percent of American adults have suffered from levels of severe pain.  The most common chronic pain conditions include

  • Lower back pain
  • Arthritis
  • Headache
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Nerve pain

Many of these health conditions may be affected by changing weather conditions like humidity, barometric pressure or temperature.

Arthritis and the Weather

Arthritis afflicts more than 40 million Americans, and many of these arthritis sufferers experience changes in their symptoms as the weather changes. For centuries, there has been anecdotal evidence that arthritis sufferers could predict alterations in the weather from changes in their pain levels.

It appears that any significant changes in temperature or barometric pressure can alter pain symptoms.  In a 2007 study from Tufts University, it was reported that a ten degree drop in temperature was sufficient to increase pain severity. Rain which is often accompanied by lower temperatures and lower barometric pressure often produces more intense pain symptoms.

Although not all arthritis sufferers are sensitive to weather, most are.  A poll published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders asked 712 people with arthritis if they could sense changes in the weather, and 469 responded affirmatively.

Medical experts have yet to pinpoint the exact reason for this relationship between weather and chronic pain, but in the case of arthritis sufferers, many experts believe that changes in barometric pressure create expansion or contraction of joint tissue including bone, tendons or muscles. Low temperatures may also thicken joint fluids, making joints stiffer and more painful to move.

Weather and Headaches

Almost everyone encounters headaches at some point in their lives, but for the 38 million Americans who suffer from migraines and, especially the two to three million who endure chronic migraines, these are much more than minor interruptions.  Migraine headaches are often accompanied by intense pain on one side of the head, light sensitivity, nausea and blurred vision. Bouts with migraine symptoms can be debilitating.

Migraine patients do appear to be sensitive to changes in the weather that feature

  • Sunny glare
  • Extreme heat or cold
  • High humidity
  • Storms
  • Barometric pressure changes

It is believed that changes in the weather can elevate or depress serotonin levels in the brain.  The neurotransmitter serotonin is believed to modulate sensitivity to pain.  Many migraine patients have lower levels of serotonin, which is why serotonin therapy is commonly recommended.

Some medical experts believe that there is an evolutionary advantage to weather-related headaches.  Extreme heat or cold or the onset of storms that trigger migraines or tension headaches would force people to seek shelter.

Weather’s Influence on Back Pain

Back pain is one of the most common forms of chronic pain, afflicting about 31 million Americans at any given time. This form of chronic pain may be caused by many factors including injury, disk degeneration, arthritis, bone fracture or cancer. Many of these conditions may not be affected by changes in the weather, but others may cause pain to rise or fall.

Your back is a complex network of bones, muscles, nerves and connective tissue.  When it grows colder outside, you may experience more back pain as many of these tissues to contract.  Many back pain conditions like herniated disc which cause inflammation often produce more intense pain when exposed to colder conditions.

The cold naturally causes your blood vessels to narrow, lowering the flow of blood throughout your body.  This response is intended to conserve body heat, but it has the unintended effect of stiffening many of the components of your back.

A lower barometric pressure may also intensify joint pain by swelling already inflamed tissue.  One popular theory is that the lower pressure prevents fluid removal from swollen tissue, and this accumulation produces more pain. 

How Weather May Affect Chronic Pain in General

From the previous examples, it is fairly easy to delineate a relationship between weather and chronic pain. If you suffer from a chronic pain condition, you should be aware of other possible linkages.  Firstly, you should understand that chronic pain is greatly influenced by your emotional state. If you are stressed, anxious or depressed, your pain symptoms are likely to intensify. Unfortunately, colder or inclement weather often triggers these emotions in many people which can make chronic pain feel much worse.

Secondly, changes in the seasons often affect our daily habits.  It is easy to nest in the autumn and winter when our energy levels drop.  You may find yourself limiting time out of the house and spending more time inactive.  This decrease in physical activity can cause many chronic pain conditions to worsen. Without an active lifestyle, your joints and muscles may stiffen, limiting your mobility and further incentivizing you to remain inactive.  Furthermore, without the emotional boost from adrenaline after a workout, you may experience a gradual decline in emotional health over the winter months.

Another strong influence on pain symptoms is sleep. Maintaining a regular habit of a full night of restful sleep is essential for chronic pain sufferers.  Unfortunately, many people have their sleep patterns disrupted when the seasons shorten or lengthen.  This regular day/night cycle may alter when sundown is considerably sooner or later than your normal bedtime, making sleep much more difficult to attain or maintain throughout the night.

On the other hand, you may experience more powerful pain symptoms in hot seasons as well.  For people with joint issues, expansion of tissue may be just as painful as contraction due to cold.  One study of people with osteoarthritis found that five percent had pronounced pain symptoms when the weather warmed up. People with fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis or migraines may also have worsening symptoms when summer arrives.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.