Pain and Barometric Pressure

There’s a Connection Between Pain and Barometric Pressure

When we’re young, we may be happily oblivious to the link between pain and the weather just as we’re less susceptible to pain in general. But as we get older, we may find that the weather really does affect the degree to which we experience knee pain, pain in our wrists and hands, or hip pain. The connection can be perplexing, though, because it doesn’t appear to make sense that the weather is affecting us even when it’s nice and sunny outside.

The explanation lies in the link between pain and barometric pressure.

Pain and Barometric Pressure

How Do We Know Barometric Pressure Is Linked to Pain?

In a study published in the American Pain Society’s online Journal of Pain, Professor Robert Newlin Jamison of the Harvard Medical School interviewed people in four cities with distinctly different weather patterns. He found that two thirds of his subjects reported that their pain intensified about a day or two before the city experienced a storm. This supports the old folk belief that there truly is such a thing as “arthritis weather.”

How Does Barometric Pressure Affect Pain?

The short answer is that we don’t know yet. But there is a plausible hypothesis.

Barometric pressure can be conceptualized as the degree to which the air weighs down on us. Changes in the weather decrease or increase that weight.

The tissues that surround our joints aren’t rigid. To a degree, they expand or contract based on the pressure that’s exerted on them. The drop in atmospheric pressure that comes before bad weather allows them to expand, with the result that they themselves exert increased pressure on the joints inside them. With that pressure comes pain.

Of course, the expansion is minute. We don’t see people swelling up prior to bad weather. But if you already have a condition that leaves you susceptible to joint pain like chronic arthritis or some other degenerative joint condition, even that tiny difference can make pain flare.

In What Conditions Is Barometric Pressure Linked to Pain?

We commonly think of arthritis pain as affected by the weather, but it’s not the only ailment that leaves a sufferer susceptible. You can also experience the effect if you have multiple sclerosis, an injury, complex regional pain syndrome, chronic inflammation, scarring, or adhesions (scar tissue on the inner lining of the abdomen or between internal organs.)

Barometric Pressure, Pain, and Altitude

The higher above sea level we travel, the more atmospheric pressure diminishes. This is even true aboard an airplane, where, although the cabin is pressurized, pressure is still less than if the traveler were still on the ground. For this reason, passengers sometimes experience swelling of the feet and ankles, and if they’re susceptible to pain in those parts of the body, the swelling may trigger it.

Will Living in the Right Area Break the Link Between Barometric Pressure and Pain?

It sounds like it should, doesn’t it? You should be able to move to a warm, dry climate and leave pain behind.

Unfortunately, though, Professor Jamison’s research doesn’t bear that out. Apparently, wherever you move to, your body adjusts to that climate as the new normal, leaving you as vulnerable to pain based on shifts in the weather as before.

But there are things you can do to manage pain when a change in barometric pressure triggers it.

Ways to Manage Pain When a Change in Barometric Pressure Elicits It

  • Keep warm. Dress in layers and keep the house well heated. Warm up the interior of your car before driving and use an electric blanket at bedtime. You can even warm clothes in the dryer before donning them.
  • Use a heating pad.Heat will relax muscles and soothe joint pain.
  • Exercise painful joints.Stretching will loosen them up and relieve pain.
  • Fight swelling.Compression gloves, cuffs, and sleeves that fit snugly around affected joints will help.
  • Work on your mood.Remaining cheerful and positive helps you cope with pain. Do things you enjoy and give yourself permission to rest more.
  • Temporarily increase your pain medication.Naturally, you should consult with your doctor before taking this measure.
  • Finally, remember that the flare-up will pass. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that the weather’s always changing.