A cold front blew into New York last night and I arose to my knee being stiff. This has become a common phenomenon I’ve learned to live with post surgery in February 2017.
Before surgery, I used to discredit others when they would complain about their joints being in pain, stiff, or tight due to weather changes. I would always chalk up their anecdotes to the placebo effect, but I’m not going to lie, I’ve slowly become a believer to weather impacting our joints. Although, is there scientific rationale to this belief?
Sure, we could anecdotally state that our joints are stiff when cold fronts blow in, it’s going to rain, and so forth, but how factual is that? Could it be possible that we’ve built a relationship with two unrelated variables through the use of association?
Let’s look at what the science says.
Defining Joint Stiffness & Pain
Editor’s Note: The information on BarBend is purely informative in nature and is not intended to take the place of qualified medical advice. If you experience significant joint pain, please see a medical professional immediately.
Stiffness and pain in the joints is typically referred to as arthritis, which is a term used to classify joint pain and disease. A common misconception that comes along with arthritis is that it’s a single entity; it’s actually a blanket term used to rope multiple types of joint pain and disease subsets into one category.
This being said, one may experience arthritis-like symptoms similar to a peer, but the actual cause of pain or stiffness could be different. Arthritis can be caused by many things, and some of these include things like inflammation and degeneration.
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is the degeneration or decrease of cartilage in a joint, aka there’s less “cushion” between bony processes. This in return, can cause joints to swell, become inflamed, tight, painful, and stiff. Causes for this type of cartilage degeneration can stem from normal wear and tear with aging, previous injuries, excessive weight, and other things like family history.
Symptoms (pain, stiffness, etc) that are associated with arthritis can range from mild to moderate and severe. Often, when one associates their joint’s feeling with the weather, symptoms will fall somewhere in the mild to moderate range. Basically, suggesting there’s some mild tightness, maybe slight pain, and the perception that it’s taking one’s body longer to “feel right”.
Weather Factors That May Impact Joints
Atmospheric pressure can essentially be summarized as the amount of air pressure within the earth’s atmosphere. For a more scientific definition check out this note from the University of Illinois, “Atmospheric pressure is defined as the force per unit area exerted against a surface by the weight of the air above that surface.”
The level of atmospheric pressure around us can vary due to things like altitude, elevation, and storms. Air is composed of molecules, which have mass. That being said, all of the air that surrounds us to the top of the earth’s atmosphere has a weight to it. If you’re thinking, that’s a lot of air, why doesn’t it crush us? Well, the air’s molecules create force in every direction, and not just down, so there’s a balance.
When the temperature changes, so does the atmospheric pressure around us. As temperatures increase, so does the rate at which molecules collide with one another. These collisions then causes an increase of force exerted by each molecule, which then causes the atmospheric pressure to increase.
Conversely, when temperature decreases, so does atmospheric pressure. Cooler temperatures cause air molecules to move slower, so there are less collisions, which in return decreases atmospheric pressure. Temperature can also cause some variance in atmospheric pressure at different altitudes.
Basic Joint Kinematics
Since we’re talking about the relationship between the weather and our joints, I thought it would be useful to provide a quick joint crash course.
Joints are movable areas on the body that are a connection point between two bones. Each bone will have a layer of cartilage at the end of it, which will vary in thickness. Between the two bony processes is a an airtight space that holds the joint’s synovial fluid within the joint cavity. The two bone articulations, cartilage, and synovial fluid are enclosed within the joint capsule, which ensures everything stays airtight.
Most joints are similar in construction, but there are a few that have foundational differences. For example, the knee has the addition of the meniscus and cruciate ligaments, which can be found additionally within the joint cavity. Also, joints will have different shapes based on the activities they’re meant to provide and respond to (shock absorption, explosive movements, etc).
Weather and the Joints
If you’ve made it this far in the article, then buckle your seat belt because it’s about to get bumpy. A lot of the current research on this topic is inconclusive, and multiple studies have found conflicting results. In addition, there definitely needs to be more work done on this topic before making any definitive notions.
In my opinion, I don’t know if there will ever be conclusive evidence on this topic, as a joint’s health will differ from person to person depending on multiple attributes (family history, one’s pain perception, previous injuries, etc.). That’s in addition to the fact that research has suggested that both hot and cold climates can play a role in how one perceives joint-related issues. This all being said, that’s a lot of variables that could potentially play a role in this topic, so a one-size-fits-all answer is probably not realistic.
There are two things I’d like to note before diving into the research below, (1) everything described below should be taken as suggestions and not conclusive findings, and (2) the populations in most of these studies are not recreational or elite strength athletes, so what is presented should be taken with a grain of salt.
The first study from 2014 sought to find a relationship between weather sensitivity and joint pain in an elderly population with osteoarthritis. Researchers began with a baseline of data from the European Project of OSteoArthritis, and then had participants disclose their current thoughts on weather sensitivity. After disclosure, participants followed a two-week pain calendar to self-report joint pain.
727 participants (age range 65-85) finished the full 14-day study. Out of these 727 participants, 712 of them met the research’s osteoarthritis qualification and were included in the current data. Researchers found that 67% (469 participants) of those with osteoarthritis reported to be more sensitive to weather.
Within this 67% to weather sensitivity, 39% (184 participants) reported to be sensitive to damp/rainy condition, 30% (145 participants) reported to be sensitive to only cold, and 4% (23 participants) reported to be sensitive to only hot. Additionally, 26% (117 participants) reported to be sensitive to more than one weather condition and 22% (98 participants) reported that rainy/damp and cold were their most sensitive times.
Something interesting about this study is that the majority of weather sensitive participants were most impacted by cold and damp conditions. Researchers speculate this could be to the viscosity of synovial fluid in these climates, which could cause joint stiffness and pain. In addition, they speculated that those sensitive to warmer climates could experience this due to the expansion of some tissues, which may elicit a pain response.
Another study from 2007 explored how atmospheric pressure and temperature related to knee osteoarthritis pain. Researchers performed an analysis of pain reports for 200 participants from across the nation. Participants self-tracked their knee osteoarthritis pain levels for 3-months. Over the course of the 3-month time frame, researchers also recorded daily temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, precipitation, and relative humidity.
The mean age of the participants who were utilized in this study was 60 years old. Researchers found and noted that atmospheric pressure, temperature, and dew point (typically related to temperature) all had a relatively consistent relationship with one’s pain severity. They suggest that the atmospheric pressure and temperature are the two weather variables that had the most consistent relationship with a joint’s pain.
Within the research’s discussion, they note that when joints are under pressure, then pain levels tend to rise. They discuss that this is often considered to be caused by an increase in sudden gas tension within the joint, which can then impact biomechanics. Similar to the first study, they also suggest that the feeling of pain during cold weather could be caused by the viscosity of the joint’s synovial fluid.
The final study we’ll look at was performed in 2016. This research analyzed how weather influenced pain exacerbation in patients with knee osteoarthritis. For this web-based study, researchers followed 345 participants for 3-months and had them log onto the study’s site and record times when they felt exacerbation in their knee pain.
To analyze weather, researchers recorded data on maximum and minimum temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and precipitation. Of the 345 participants, 171 of them reported having pain over the course of the study. When researchers compared the pain reports to the analyzed weather factors they noted that there were no consistent and apparent associations between the variables.
To provide a little objectivity to the above research I wanted to point out a few limitations these studies have for strength athletes reading this. [awkward sentence] First, a majority of the studies I’ve read and included are performed on those with diagnosed arthritis. This could dilute how relevant the above information is with the athlete that experiences casual mild joint pain from lifting.
Second, strenuous activity has been suggested by a few studies to create additional wear and tear on joints. This being said, an athlete who experiences joint pain infrequently could actually just be wrongly relating discomfort caused by their lifting with the weather.
Third, the above studies (and few others I’ve looked at) were based off of self-perceived pain reports. This obviously brings up the issue with variance between individuals on multiple levels. Everyone will have some variability with how they perceive pain, along with how they live their day-to-day (think: stressful jobs, poor nutrition, and other factors).
If we strictly look at the research and what’s been suggested, then we can draw a few practical takeaways. The research isn’t conclusive, but there is some evidence out there suggesting that weather can have an impact on a joint’s pain, stiffness, and biomechanics. It’s also worth noting that a majority of us won’t fit in the age ranges used above within the studies.
- Weather sensitivity will come down to the individual, and no two sensitivities will likely be the same.
- Strength athletes may experience changes in weather more than their peers due to their joints having slightly more wear and tear.
- Cold and damp climates tend to cause more discomfort in the joints.
Look, at the end of the day, you can interpret the research as you please, and it’s not conclusive enough to state one way or another. Although, there have been suggestions made about weather impacting the joints, so the next time your training partner is griping about his elbow hurting during a cold front blowing in, cut him some slack, he may not be full of it after all.
Feature image from @elleryphotos Instagram page.