Maybe you're known as the family weatherperson because your stiff, achy joints tell you when a snowstorm will be blowing in. But if you think you can fly south for the winter to escape joint pain, think again. It's not the drop in temperature that causes your joints to flare up— it's the change in pressure.
How does it work? Read on for answers.
Barometric pressure primer
Barometric pressure, also known as air pressure and atmospheric pressure, changes when warm air mixes with cool air. This can result in storms and swollen, painful joints.
"There are barometric receptors in the joints, and when the ambient pressure in the atmosphere changes, the receptors sense the change, says Michael Miranda, DO, an orthopedic surgeon with Brandon Regional Hospital in Brandon, Florida. "Fluid shifts in the joint and the pressure in the joint changes. That allows for swelling of the tissue inside the joint."
What hurts, and how
The structure called a "joint" is where two or more bones come together. It's a complex structure that involves bone, ligaments, cartilage and fluid— called synovial fluid. "There's synovial tissue and synovial fluid. When pressure changes, the tissue swells and the fluid shifts, and that's what causes the pain," says Dr. Miranda.
Any joint can be affected, but weight-bearing joints like the knees, hips and ankles seem to be more likely to be affected, according to Miranda. He says people describe weather-related joint pain as a little worse than normal, an "aggravation of symptoms," Miranda explains. People also notice stiffness in the muscles around the joint, he says.
Who feels the storm?
Men and women are equally likely to feel pain and swelling in their joints when there's a storm coming, says Miranda. People with arthritis and lupus are often prone to weather-related joint pain, he adds. "The weather doesn't cause it, but patients with these conditions often have those symptoms," Miranda says.
There's a stereotype of a little old man or woman on a rocking chair, complaining about their joints and predicting a storm, but that's because older people are more likely to have arthritis. "Younger patients' joints are usually not as arthritic, so they don't sense it as much," says Miranda, but that doesn't mean younger people can't feel a change of the weather in their joints.
What you can do
Besides control the weather, which isn't likely? Be prepared, says Miranda. If you know there will be snow, keep extra layers handy to keep your joints warm. When there's precipitation in the forecast, take ibuprofen or another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to combat the pain and swelling in your joints.
Exercise can help keep your joints lubricated and the muscles around them strong and supportive. Aim for a mix of strength training and cardio. "Stay limber and do stretching," adds Miranda.