Why We Have Musculoskeletal Aches, Pains in Cold Weather & What to Do About it.
"This weather makes my hip act up." Musculoskeletal aches and pains seem to worsen with colder temperatures. Read on to learn why and what you and your patients or injured workers' can do about it.
Whether it's a torn muscle, an injury at work, or a stiff arthritic joint, the drop in temperatures and increasingly wet weather can affect our bodies. Read on as we answer the following key questions about your joint pain and cold weather woes:
What does the research say about weather and pain?
Why might this be?
Can your knees really predict the weather?
Tips and tricks to address joint pain and injuries in yourself or your employees
On average, patients perceive the weather as a factor that worsens their pain. If you ask the average osteoarthritis sufferer, they'll tell you that high humidity and cold affect their joints.
In fact, in a study of 2942 people with osteoarthritis (OA) from 6 different European countries (UK, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands), 67.2% reported that the weather influenced their levels of pain.
The same is true of muscle injuries. In the study 'Increased risk of muscle tears below physiological temperature ranges, researchers found that when the muscle falls below regular body temperature (37C or 99F), they are at increased risk of tears. When the muscle is under 32C or 90F, it requires less energy to tear a muscle.
Are weather and pain correlated?
Despite extensive research, the scientific community still hasn't come to a consensus about the relationship between weather and joint pain.
Several studies have asserted there is no causality despite the frequency of anecdotal reports from joint pain patients. Others think joint pain could also be influenced by the seasonal drop in overall mood which can increase the perception of pain.
While there's still no definitive consensus on what weather-related joint pain, a number of studies have shown some degree of correlation between increased pain and weather:
In a study of 810 patients with OA, Timmermans et al. found that average humidity daily and over a 3 day period were both positively associated with joint pain. What's more, this effect of humidity on pain was stronger in cold weather conditions.
A 2019 study, 'Cloudy with a Chance of Pain' used a smartphone app to collect data on the relationship between weather and joint pain. The data was collected daily from 2658 patients over 15 months. Data analysis showed statistically significant relationships between pain and humidity, pressure and wind speed. See this correlation plotted here.
In a study of 200 osteoarthritis patients, researchers found that for each 10°F decrease in temperature, there was an increase in knee pain score of 0.1 (on the WOMAC scale).
How Does it Work? Possible Explanations for Body Aches and Pains from the Cold.
Humidity and barometric pressure
Humidity is known to play a role in the expansion and contraction of tissues, such as the muscles and tendons around joints, which may lead to increased pain.
In a study into pressure and hip stability, Wingstrand et al. also showed that atmospheric pressure is important in stabilizing the hip joint. They found that normally, the pressure inside the hip joint is below the atmospheric pressure. If the hip joint pressure is brought up to that of the atmospheric pressure, subluxation (significant joint displacement) of 8mm occurred. They also found that in the case of joint effusion (commonly referred to as fluid or water on the joint), the joint pressure was higher.
Low temperatures may also make joints feel stiffer and more sensitive to pain, by increasing the viscosity or thickness of synovial fluid.
Mood and pain
Seasonal bad weather may also influence a person's mood, which may lead to an increased pain perception.
Can your knees really predict the weather?
In some households, it's common knowledge that when grandma's knee is acting up, it's going to rain.
There may actually be some sense to this.
In a study of knee osteoarthritis patients, McAlindon et al. found that increased barometric pressure was correlated with increased pain.
Distinct changes in barometric pressure also come about before a big weather event.
But while changes in barometric pressure are very real, they're not always directly observable outside in that day's weather patterns.
This could explain why some patients believe their pain predicts bad weather.
What's the best way to combat aches and pains this winter?
Research recommends staying active, layering up, as well as regularly stretching and strengthening the muscles around the affected joint.
Cold weather also means tighter, more constricted muscles, so stretching before physical activity is good advice for anyone looking to prevent strain or injury.
Tips and tricks:
Keep moving: Despite the desire to stop being active when pain happens, staying active is the best thing to ensure healthy joints and muscles.
Stretch and warm up your muscles before exercising: We've all heard to stretch before exercise. But during cold times it becomes especially important to also warm up your body parts before exercising. Make sure that your limbs are all warmed up to approximately your core temperature before doing exercise1
Dress warmly when outside: Make sure to keep muscles warm to help avoid aches and injuries.
Layer up: Add extra layers to pain-sensitive joints or areas to keep them nice and warm.
Keep warm and dry at home: Turning up the heat or buying a dehumidifier may not be a bad idea if you find your joints are cold or humidity sensitive.
Lose a bit of weight: The link between a few extra pounds and joint pain is undeniable. Working on eating healthy and watching your waistline can help alleviate joint pain.
For those living in winter countries, or the lower 48 states like Alaska, North Dakota, Maine, or Wyoming, cold temperatures can be especially taxing. Scientific-evidence aside, if you experience extra pain and discomfort during wet, cold weather you're not alone. Paying attention to your body, and taking special care when you feel a musculoskeletal flare-up is part of a healthy recovery journey.