Knee Pain and Weather: Is There Really a Link?
Post originally written by Eric Metcalf, MPH, Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Research supports what many people have long suspected — weather may indeed have an influence on joint pain.
When weather forecasters at the different TV stations around Louisville, Ky., claim that they have the best weather-predicting technology, orthopedic surgeon Stephen Makk, MD, MBA, gets a laugh. "I always say, instead of super-duper Doppler 8000, they should just get a room full of people with arthritis and ask 'Is it going to snow tomorrow or not?'" says Dr. Makk, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
If you have chronic knee pain, you may be familiar with aches and pains that change with the weather. If you think the weather can influence your joints, it's not just your imagination: Some research does indeed support a connection.
Knee Pain and Weather: Reports of Pain
Many patients emphatically insist that the weather affects their joints, says Timothy McAlindon, MD, MPH, chief of rheumatology and a professor of medicine at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. But in the past, doctors were often inclined to think this was all in the patient's head, he says.
"It's common,” says Dr. McAlindon. “I would say most patients with rheumatic symptoms would say the weather affects their symptoms." McAlindon was the lead investigator of a study involving 200 people with knee osteoarthritis, with an average age of 60, who lived across the United States. Every two weeks, patients went online to report their pain, and the researchers collected information about recent weather conditions from a weather station near each participant.
"We found that greater pain was associated with an increase in barometric pressure, and with lower ambient temperature," McAlindon says. A rise in barometric pressure can be associated with different kinds of weather, but often it occurs a day or two before a big storm. "When you ask people what happens, they feel a crescendo of pain before the storm, and when the weather breaks and it rains, they feel some relief," he says.
Not surprisingly, temperature changes are also linked to a lack of activity in people with arthritis. In a recent study measuring physical activity in 241 adults with arthritis living in Chicago (a city known for weather extremes), the amount of sedentary time increased by over three hours between November and June.
Knee Pain and Weather: Science Behind a Possible Link
Some medical evidence supports the idea that atmospheric pressure could cause knee pain. Some patients who have had surgery will complain of pain at their incision sites linked to the weather, particularly during the first year after the surgery, Makk says. Research has shown that atmospheric pressure can be transmitted to the space within joints, McAlindon says, and "it's logical to assume that in people with osteoarthritis and damaged cartilage, that pressure could be transmitted to the bone beneath the cartilage, which contains pressure receptors and pain receptors."
Knee Pain and Weather: What Can You Do About It?
This knowledge about the weather's effects might also help you control your knee pain better. "If you know a big front is coming in, you might make sure you're taking your medications properly, or maybe supplement it with Tylenol if you don't have any health contraindications,," says Makk. If that fails, he jokes, ask for a prescription from your doctor to fly to Arizona for the weekend to make everything feel better.
However you treat and manage your pain, you can take comfort in the fact that science may support your forecasting ability. Weather may indeed play a role in knee pain, and more doctors are considering the connection to be valid.