It’s a story Dr. Daniel Mueller hears from his patients all the time: When the weather turns cold, they can feel the change in their joints — and it hurts.
“Particularly here in the North, where there is a pretty dramatic change in seasons,” Mueller said, “the patients really feel that.”
But can we really feel changes in the weather in our bones?
That’s a widespread belief supported by an abundance of testimonials from aging jocks and grandmas everywhere who claim that they’re able to predict weather changes by increased aches and pains.
The phenomenon seems to strike arthritis sufferers the most, but it afflicts others, too. Migraine headaches, sinus problems, toothaches and other maladies have been linked to weather. People with previous injuries — maybe a broken bone — say they can feel temperature shifts in those sore spots.
While some dismiss the claims as nothing more than folklore, scientists are working to find out if there is a link between weather and pain.
Most researchers point to this likely culprit: dips in barometric pressure.
So far, the science is murky at best. There have been only a small number of studies on the possible weather-pain connection, and their findings are mixed.
“The truth is that a lot of people report that the weather affects their pain — that’s the reality of it,” said Dr. Robert Jamison, a professor of psychiatry and anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School who has researched weather’s effects on chronic pain. “Whether we understand the mechanism, we can only speculate.”
Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere around us. To understand how it may affect the body, think of an inflated balloon. There’s pressure inside the balloon pushing out and pressure from the outside pushing in, Jamison said.
“Our bodies are made of mostly bones and tissue and water, with various densities,” he said. “So when the outside pressure actually changes … then there’s some subtle swelling and changes inside our bodies.”
That swelling can irritate nerve endings, causing pain.
Ruth Berger, 76, knows what that feels like. A registered nurse, she works out three times a week at Welcyon, a fitness center for people over 50. Berger, of Bloomington, has osteoarthritis and uses exercise to help her cope with the “annoying” pain she blames on the change in temperature.
“Sometimes you have a few aches and pains, like when the weather changes,” she said, “and the arthritis kicks up.”
An age-old pain
The belief in a connection between weather and health dates at least to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates — considered the father of Western medicine — noted a link between illnesses and changes in season. Today, sayings such as “feeling under the weather” reflect a sense of this long-held bond between wellness and weather.
For a few years now, the AccuWeather website has included an Arthritis Index to forecast which days are likely to increase suffering. For example, the index describes some days as “beneficial weather for arthritis pain” and others as “at-risk weather for arthritis pain.” There’s even a branch of science dedicated to the study of the relationship between the atmosphere and people: human biometeorology.
While there’s been no hard proof of weather’s effect on pain, many doctors suggest it’s only a matter of time before the science catches up with the anecdotal evidence.
“It does seem to be true that there’s a little bit of something there,” said Mueller, a physician and director of rheumatic and autoimmune diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
In a notable study from the 1960s, researcher John Hollander placed several patients with rheumatoid arthritis in a sealed chamber and changed the atmospheric conditions. He found that swelling and stiffness increased for patients with a rise in humidity and a drop in barometric pressure.
While those findings conflict with other research, a more recent study has helped revive the age-old debate. A 2007 study, which involved 200 arthritis sufferers nationwide, Tufts University researchers compared patients’ reported pain with temperature, humidity and pressure data from local weather stations. They concluded that joint pain often came before a change in barometric pressure.
Most weather-pain research is limited in a sense, Mueller said, because it is largely based on the patients’ perception of their pain. In addition, the increase in pain tends to be minor.
Even in the sun
What about those pesky previous injuries? Doctors also differ in their views on weather’s impact on a replaced knee or a broken wrist.
Mueller thinks the pain felt in these areas is more likely a result of the body’s healing process over time. When those injuries heal “they don’t heal with the normal mechanics,” he explained. That joint tends to wear out prematurely, he said.
Avid runner Brady Gervais suffered a stress fracture in her heel and started running again in the spring.
Months later, as the temperatures dropped sharply and the air turned frigid, she went out running and felt the pain in her heel once again.
Gervais, 31, thought she’d reinjured her foot and went to the doctor to check it out. Her heel was fine, but the incident left her scratching her head.
“It really felt like my heel was fractured again,” she said. “I felt soreness every time there was an impact — every time my foot struck the ground.”
In many of these anecdotal accounts, a common factor seems to be the extent of the temperature drop. But Harvard’s Jamison encountered a surprise finding in his research. In his study, 557 people with chronic pain from four cities across the country were interviewed about their pain symptoms. Of those, 67 percent said that they really believed that changes in the weather affected how much they hurt.
The eye-opener: Even people in warmer climates said weather fluctuations affected their pain.
“Some people really think that if they didn’t have to live in Minnesota and they went to Florida or Arizona that their pain would somehow disappear,” Jamison said.
But that’s not the case.
Jamison’s research left his team thinking that “perhaps our bodies tend to adjust no matter where we are. Real subtle changes still seem to trigger some effect on the pain.”
So, if you feel the weather in your bones, Sarasota may not provide the cure.