Just this past week, a patient said to me, “Well, my pain is worse when it’s cold, so I’ll just get through the winter and see how my pain is when it’s warmer. I think it will be better.”
Experiencing more pain when it’s cold (or when the weather changes) is very common. This has been the case for many, many years. In Lincoln, Neb., we get our fair share of cold weather! As an orthopaedic surgeon, my goal is to help reduce pain for patients. So what is the connection between weather and pain? And what tips can I offer you to help relieve this kind of pain?
Common Causes for Pain When the Weather Changes
A few theories exist on how weather conditions affect pain. These conditions include temperature, atmospheric pressure changes and humidity.
Temperature Changes Affect Your Tendons, Muscles & Bones
Because tendons, muscles, bones, and scar tissue have different densities, they contract at different rates during changes in temperature. This may cause pain due to small injuries or stress on the tendons and bones.
Changes in Atmospheric Pressure Create Changes in Your Joints
Changes in atmospheric pressure—which occur when the weather is changing—may cause pressure changes within the joints. This can make your nerve endings more sensitive and cause increased pain. In addition, patients with osteoarthritis often have cysts within their bones that communicate with the joint. The atmospheric changes can cause pressure on the sensitive nerve endings found in these joints.
Fluids in Your Joints React to Colder Temperatures
Lower temperatures can increase the stiffness in joints because the joint fluid becomes thicker. This increases friction within the joint and can lead to more pain.
Temperature Affects the Feel of Metal Implants
Metal implants, such as those used in joint replacements and spine fusions, transfer heat and cold better than human tissue. Think of a metal pan in the oven that feels hotter than the roast or a metal car door that feels much colder than the fabric car seat. Patients who have metal implants sometimes feel the colder implants during lower temperatures.
Depression & Its Relationship to Weather & Pain
Rates of depression can increase during colder days with less sunlight. People with depression or depressive symptoms experience pain more frequently and with more severity than those who are not depressed.
Nerve Endings Are More Sensitive in Colder Weather
Nerve pain in the hands and the feet can become worse in colder temperatures. In mice, a study has shown that nerve endings become more sensitive to pain when exposed to cold temperatures.
Dry Skin Is More Common & Painful in Colder Months
Dry skin becomes more common in the colder months. This skin is more easily damaged and may become painful.
Studies on Weather-Related Pain
Many studies contradict one another, and there’s no clear consensus on why people experience more pain when the weather gets colder. Here are the results of a couple studies, although neither study found a great effect of the change in weather to pain.
- In a study of over 800 patients, researchers found that humidity had a greater effect on joint pain during colder temperatures. Patients experienced the most pain when the weather was cold and damp.
- In a study of 53 patients, physicians found that changes in atmospheric pressure from one day to the next caused more pain.
Steps You Can Take to Reduce Pain During Cold Weather
- Dress warmly with layers, hats, scarves, gloves
- Exercise and stay active
- Apply lotion to relieve dry skin
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water
Jason Weber, MD
Jason Weber, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Lincoln Orthopaedic Center, specializes in foot and ankle surgery, general fracture care, knee replacements and sports medicine. He lives in Lincoln with his wife, Michelle and two kids, Eliza and Silas.