As fall weather hits and we head into winter, some people experience worse back pain. Is it true that the weather and back pain are connected, though, or is this just a myth that won’t die? Can some people really predict the weather by how their joints feel?
In a 1997 study by Drane, patients were not able to accurately predict the weather simply by observing their joints. Other studies have found that patients with osteoarthritis had no clear exacerbated of pain linked to temperature (Patberg, 2004). However, the same study showed that pain from rheumatoid arthritis was worsened by changes in temperature.
Much of the research done in this area relies on patient recall or incomplete data, making it hard to determine any real connections between the weather and back pain. More robust evidence was collected in a more recent case-crossover study in Australia, where scientists talked to patients at primary care clinics in Sydney and recorded the weather at the time of these visits.
The researchers found no evidence that back pain was affected by rain, humidity, or air pressure (Steffens et al., 2014). They also found no connection between temperature and episodes of low back pain when interviewing almost a thousand patients.
The researchers did find a very slight correlation between low back pain episodes and wind speed, however. There was a 17% increased likelihood of back pain arising when wind speed increased by 11 km/h. There was also a 14% increased likelihood of back pain onset when wind gusts occurred (an increase of 14 km/h).
What could be causing this link between wind and back pain? The only thing we can do at this point is to speculate, which usually isn’t all that helpful in regards to health. Instead, if it’s howling with wind outside, perhaps this is a handy reminder to all of us to look after our spinal health to reduce our risk of back pain.
The claim to clairvoyance based on rheumatism so far remains largely unsupported. Is this the end of the story though? It seems not, as some researchers have been looking at the physiological effects of more extreme aspects of the weather on joints and musculoskeletal function.
The weather and back pain – temperature
There is some evidence that temperature can affect musculoskeletal symptoms, including neck pain. This seems to largely be restricted to rather cold temperatures. In one study by Piedrahita’s (2008), there was an increased incidence of neck pain in workers freeze-drying coffee at temperatures of -43C to -62C.
More than a fifth of the workers (21%) experienced neck pains in this study. The company was recommended to make changes to improve workers’ health, but the irony is that heavier protective clothing also increases the risk of neck pain.
In a case study, cold temperatures were found to increase the incidence of neck pain in one patient by inducing stenosis (narrowing) of the external carotid arteries. Schiller (2007) wrote about this unusual case and reported that the patient’s symptoms were effectively relieved following surgery to revascularize the arteries.
The weather and back pain – air pressure
Aside from looking at temperature, most research into the weather and back pain has focused on air pressure. This is because of a theory that outside air temperature can cause changes in pressure in the synovial fluid of the joints. An increase in pressure may then lead to compression of blood vessels and nerves in and around joints, creating pain and other symptoms.
In one double blind, controlled study, people with osteoarthritis had an increase in pain when air pressure dropped below a certain level. The same people did not report changes in symptoms when temperatures changed. Conversely, people with rheumatoid arthritis did not report symptom changes associated with pressure changes but did have an increase in pain when temperatures dropped (Vergés, 2004).
This disparity may go some way to explaining why results from weather and back pain studies are often inconsistent. If researchers are looking at patients with multiple causes of joint pain, and at various weather factors, it’s not all that surprising that confusion abounds.
The weather and back pain – oxygen
This may be a bit of a stretch, but when air pressure drops so does the oxygen content of that air. This means that our bodies have to work harder to get the oxygen we need to keep muscles functioning properly. People who are already susceptible to muscle fatigue, such as those with fibromyalgia, may feel even more tired during low pressure spells.
The weather and neck pain – nutrition
Another link between the weather and musculoskeletal health comes courtesy of seasonal variations in nutrition. In the northern hemisphere from October to April the sun is not strong enough to allow us to synthesize vitamin D. This nutrient is essential for the healthy of our bones and immune function, as well as other aspects of health.
Winter vitamin D deficiency could exacerbate joint problems and pain, therefore. Vitamin D also supports a healthy inflammatory response, meaning that low levels may be connected to increased joint pain.
Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder may also be a contributing factor to back pain. Depression and back pain have been linked on numerous occasions, with people with depression found to have a lower pain tolerance in relation to cold stimuli (Klauenberg, 2008).
All in all, the jury is still very much out in terms of connections between the weather and back pain. There are, however, things that we can do to help support our back health throughout life, including exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, eating a healthy diet and getting enough vitamin D, and making use of appropriate back pain relief products if symptoms do arise.
Drane, D., Berry, G., Bieri, D., et al. (1997). The association between external weather conditions and pain and stiffness in women with rheumatoid arthritis. J Rheumatol, Jul;24(7):1309-16.
Klauenberg, S., Maier, C., Assion, H.J., et al. (2008). Depression and changed pain perception: hints for a central disinhibition mechanism. Pain, Nov 30;140(2):332-43.
Patberg, W.R., & Rasker, J.J. (2004). Weather effects in rheumatoid arthritis: from controversy to consensus. A review. J Rheumatol, Jul;31(7):1327-34.
Piedrahita, H., Oksa, J., Malm, C., & Rintamäki, H. (2008). Health problems related to working in extreme cold conditions indoors. Int J Circumpolar Health, Jun;67(2-3):279-87.
Schiller, A., Schwarz, U., Schuknecht, B., et al. (2007). Successful treatment of cold-induced neck pain and jaw claudication with revascularization of severe atherosclerotic external carotid artery stenoses. J Endovasc Ther, Jun;14(3):304-6.
Steffens, D., Maher, C.G., Li, Q., et al. (2014). Weather does not affect back pain: Results from a case-crossover study. Arthritis Care Res, Dec;66(12):1867-72.
Vergés, J., Montell, E., Tomàs, E., et al. (2004). Weather conditions can influence rheumatic diseases. Proc West Pharmacol Soc, 47:134-6.