Why Does Cold Weather Trigger Arthritis and Joint Pain?

January 04, 2018

Some people think they can predict the weather because they “feel it in their bones.” And there’s some truth to that.

Arthritis patients, in particular, feel more pain as the weather gets colder. A study from Tufts University showed that, for every 10-degree drop in temperature, arthritis patients will see a noticeable increase in joint pain.

Why do cold temperatures trigger joint pain? Scientists have studied weather-related arthritis pain since at least the early 19th century. The research isn’t conclusive, but some theories are pretty convincing.

Middle-school science students know that heat causes expansion and cold causes contraction. Your muscles contract in cold weather, and that makes them harder to move. We perceive that difficulty as pain.

If you exercise outside, you’ll notice that your muscles and bones don’t feel as flexible on cold days as they do on warm, sunny days. One thing you can do is to warm up your muscles and joints inside before you head out into the cold weather.

Accuweather even produces an arthritis pain forecast, although it is based on a formula that incorporates several different aspects of the weather.

Temperature isn’t the only weather factor that could affect your joints. Precipitation, humidity, and barometric pressure could also trigger pain.

Of these, barometric pressure seems to have the greatest impact. Because a drop in barometric pressure often precedes changes in the weather, arthritic people really can predict an upcoming storm or cold snap.

The theory behind this is that atmospheric pressure puts pressure on the outside of your joints. When bad weather is coming, the pressure drops, which allows the pressure within the joints to increase. That expansion forces the tissues around the joints to expand. The tissues contain nerve endings, which trigger signals to the brain that we are experiencing discomfort.

So yes, when an arthritic patient tells you it “feels like rain,” you might want to grab your umbrella.


Guy Fiocco is a rheumatologist with NHRMC Physician Group – Rheumatology. To make an appointment, call 910.662.7550.

Categories: Your Health

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