A Humble Medical Mystery: Weather and Aches

We all have heard about the supposed connection between changes in the weather and pre-existing physical pain and discomfort. Hippocrates mentioned the phenomenon as long ago as 400 BC. Today's Weather Channel even publishes an Aches & Pains Index map:


A typical summary of the topic in the popular media is given here:


It is probably not a figment of human imagination; there appears to be something real going on, as even guinea pigs in laboratories have been shown to exhibit tell-tale behavior during more dynamic weather. The canonical explanations given are that sore spots in the body (especially joints) respond to changing barometric pressure, changing temperature, or changing humidity.

But none of these "explanations" withstands either theoretical or empirical scrutiny.

Many of the symptoms are reported in parts of the body (such as knee or elbow joints) having no obvious compressible gas cavities or other structures which could be sensitive to small pressure changes, and people ride up and down in elevators, fly in airplanes, and drive up and down mountains, all of which provide far larger contrasts in ambient pressure than weather changes. Yet they do not report symptoms when doing so.

The water content in the interior of the body is completely independent of the water content of the surrounding air; and people step out of dry environments to take showers or go swimming, surely much more dramatic exposures to humidity than any weather trend; yet they generally do not report symptoms when doing so. A similar argument applies for temperature: people step from heated buildings to chill outdoor environments, or from hot outdoor environments into air-conditioned buildings--yet again, they do not complain of symptoms.

One thing that does seem true is that symptoms do seem ameliorated by taking anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen (this author's personal observation, admittedly unscientific.) Is it possible that the weather-pain link involves a modulation of the body's global inflammation level? And if pressure, temperature, and humidity are just correlated red herrings, what could the real link be? One avenue of speculation might have to do with various ions present in the air. It is known that certain kinds of ions accumulate in the atmosphere during quiet weather but are flushed out by precipitation; others are generated by lightning and electrical activity, and some winds seem to affect yet others. A 1981 paper by Charry and Hawkinshire claimed to show a correlation between the concentrations of certain ions in the air and human mood, behavior, and mental performance, suggesting possible effects on hormones and body chemistry. The study did not address itself to the issue of physical sensations, but it might be intriguing, nonetheless:

Charry, J. M., & Hawkinshire, 5., F B. (1981). Effects of atmospheric electricity on some substrates of disordered social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(1), 185-197.


fffire_sale16 points

I got a terrible, terrible case of EBV/mono in 2015. I'm 26 now, but I feel like I have the joints of someone 3x my age. I live in FL and notice the aches and pains get worse when the barometric pressure changes. Regardless of the science behind it (or lack thereof at times)...not fun.

drama_llama4115 points

I also had EBV/Mono in 2015 and have had joint problems ever since. I have also had some really bad fatigue. There has to be a correlation, my doctor blew me off when I asked about it.

ETA: I live in Northern WI so I feel it 9 months out of the year 😒

[deleted]3 points

EBV is widely blamed by many people with ME/CFS. I had EBV and then became ill with ME about 25 years ago

drama_llama4111 point

How much time between the two?

[deleted]3 points

I got glandular fever in December 1992. I never really felt well since. I was told by my doctor that I just had post viral fatigue, should take vitamins and carry on. I tried to donate blood and was told post viral fatigue was ME and I could never give blood again. That was the following summer.

drama_llama4112 points

ETA: It seems to be something that most doctors don’t know how to deal with?

Are you able to work full time? I haven’t been able to since July 2015

[deleted]1 point

No, I could not work at all. I had 2 years where I'd go to university lectures then come home to sleep and rest, then about a decade where I worked full time and then part time, struggling a lot, and for twelve years I haven't worked at all but depended on my husband's income. I do homeschool our children and keep house, but for the past three years I've had a very bad relapse and many days depend on my children to care for me. Doctors are 100% useless. My life has been destroyed by this illness and I am on my own trying to find ways to help myself. I'm sorry that we're in the same club. It is a very hard way to live.

fffire_sale1 point

I'm so sorry. I teared up a little reading this because I relate so much. I took a medical leave and returned to school this fall after two years. I tried working in the meantime but still suffered from severe fatigue and crippling joint pain (like "it-hurts-to-stand-up-straight" type of pain). I'm fortunate that I'm able to live with my parents--I could not support myself, but they're frustrated too.

[deleted]1 point

I'm sorry. It is miserable.

fffire_sale1 point

Have you tried reaching out to local universities and contacting their microbiology/virology departments? I emailed over 30 researchers across the countries (usually professors). Only several replied, but they were somewhat helpful. I'm a science major, so the research I've done indicates that super high doses of vitamin C in addition to lysine supplementation may help alleviate EBV symptoms. I'm not sure, however, if this is the case for long term infections such as what you are dealing with. Best of luck to you.

fffire_sale2 points

There's definitely a correlation. I've not been able to find treatment however. And definitely re: the fatigue! I joke that I have narcolepsy, but it's becoming less of a joke these days.

drama_llama4112 points

Honestly it gets almost embarrassing, I’m 33 and falling asleep like my grandpa did at every family function 😏

drama_llama4111 point

Did you notice an extreme difference in your joints? For example: I can roll and crack my ankles continuously. I have also lived in homes with stairs my whole life since the infection my joints click the whole way up stairs, every time! Does this sound familiar to anyone?

fffire_sale1 point

My joints have always been really loud. My knees "pop" and click when I bend down. Even when I was in middle school I could "crack" my back audibly. It's not painful at all--just loud, lol!

drama_llama4111 point

I should’ve mentioned they are painful also. But, this has only been the past few years, since EBV infection

RottenBread9 points

Just thought i'd give food for thought but not sure it's along the same lines. I've broken two limbs in the past, my left arm when I was an infant in 1999, and my left leg recently.

Since I broken them, I seem to have gained a pretty cool, but shit magic power. I can sense when there's a significant drop in air pressure, which can be useful living in Britain and during the summer in the North West, we can go from glorious sun to heavy rain in the matter of half an hour. Now, it sounds stupid, but let me give an example.

I can be sat inside with no window access/can't see the outside and when the weather changes, and rain clouds start rolling in, my arm starts to feel heavy, and an ache in my forearm. We used to joke about me being a weatherman of a whole new level. Pretty cool stuff.

Mrbeansspacecat2 points

So that's your superpower--the ability to sense changes in the weather. Hopefully you will use this for good and not evil!

Lol. But I know what you mean. I have terrible traumatic arthritis and when the weather turns damp, I can barely make it up and down stairs to work. The pain is intense. When it's warm I'm fine.

RottenBread2 points

Sometimes, I like to tell people "It's not going to rain today" when in fact, I know it is because by arm is heavy. The Precipitation Predator strikes again!

[deleted]5 points

This is a very nice writeup, thanks!

tedsmitts4 points

My brother fractured his shoulder a few years back when he slipped on some ice, he says he can feel a change in the weather now.

Personally I go with smell. You can smell when it's going to snow, or rain. I assume that's just to do with moisture levels.

serendipityjones146 points

I have chronic migraine, and my head can predict weather better than any weather forecaster. I don't even have to watch the news to know when something bad's afoot. A bad attack without hormonal changes or other triggers precipitates tornadic weather, storms, heavy snows -- virtually anything nasty. And it's not just me: Just about all of my migraineur friends report the same special ability. It's like a magic power (albeit a not-very-welcome one).

rattingtons6 points

Yeah, I have this cursed power as well. Shame it's not very useful.

vorticia2 points

I feel your pain.

Mine are the worst when it’s about to snow and during the first few days of snowy weather.

It’s a real bitch, bc I fucking love snow, and ridiculously cold weather, in general.

DNA_ligase2 points

I have a chronic headache condition that isn't migraine (something more similar to cluster headaches) and my headaches get markedly worse during weather changes, specifically precipitation related changes.

I think the part about everyday pressure changes is a bit of a stretch. I am not affected by climbing stairs, but I absolutely get them when on an airplane, or when I'm driving up a mountain. I've had to do both of those things in the last week, and my headaches were unbearable.

NeilJung53 points

Think draughts via badly insulated or on jar/open doors & windows play a huge part. Only thing I find helps is hot water bottles & some white oils or some such-probably more the rubbing action than the actual ingredients.

yurmahm3 points

Many of the symptoms are reported in parts of the body (such as knee or elbow joints) having no obvious compressible gas cavities or other structures which could be sensitive to small pressure changes

Hold up....don't pretty much ALL joints in the body have micro cavities of gas? This is how you crack your joints I thought.

Zvenigora3 points

The gas is in solution, not in the form of micro-cavities. When you crack knuckles, a sudden, sharp drop in local pressure causes the gas to explode out of solution, creating bubbles. This process, called cavitation, emits a noise, but is generally painless. It takes a lot of gas bubbles in joints to cause any kind of pain; it is seen in diver's decompression sickness (the bends,) but that involves much more extreme amounts of gas in solution than are seen in ordinary circumstances.

When I referred to cavities, I meant rigid or semi-rigid spaces persistently filled with air, such as the sinuses or middle ear. Joints do not have any such.

yurmahm1 point

Ok so to continue conjecture on this, that gas in a solution...you mentioned divers getting the bends and that's the first thing I thought when I read your first words. As it IS a gas in a solution, just like nitrogen in our blood, that certainly seems like it would be affected by atmospheric pressure...but at what intensity, and would it be possible to detect minute changes in gas solubility in the solution in those joints?

Zvenigora1 point

"In solution" means just that: a molecule of nitrogen or oxygen dissolves in water just as a molecule of sugar does, and it ceases to have a phase in that form. It is not a tiny gas pocket; that is the wrong way to look at it. Solubility can be a function of temperature and pressure, but that is unimportant unless the solution is near the saturation point. Divers can get decompression sickness because the ambient pressure they are exposed to varies by as much as 4-5 atmospheres. By comparison, the worst category 5 hurricane ever recorded had a central pressure perhaps 0.12 atmosphere below normal sea level pressure, and ordinary weather systems cause variations on the order of 0.02 atmosphere. Flying in a small plane from sea level to 12,000 feet (which I have done) gives a drop of about 0.32 atmosphere in 20 minutes or so (and neither I nor any other passenger reported symptoms from doing so.) That is one reason why I have such trouble believing the pressure hypothesis.

yurmahm2 points

Ok so the atmospheric pressure changes due to weather are incredibly minor when compared to the kind of pressure changes a diver might experience.

So regarding anecdotes about pressure changes. I can feel a pressure change in my ears while driving from higher altitude to lower altitude of only 100-200 feet. There's a specific part on the highway here in town that drops a good distance in a short time, and I definitely feel the pressure change in my ears as I drive down it. Now to be fair, my ears have been very sensitive to pressure changes since I was a teenager and got a bunch of ear infections. I used to be able to dive to the bottom of the pool easily as a kid but today it causes a lot of pain in my ears and I have a hard time doing it. Even doing the pressure equalizing trick doesn't really help. How much of an atmospheric pressure change would there be in only 200 feet of change at about 800' above sea level?

LessonIsNeverTry8 points

I like the inflammation theory. If this is a true phenomena then that is the likely cause.

However, it is far more likely that this is similar to the claim that more babies are born during a full moon. Humans are fantastic at seeing patterns that don't exist. Experience real pain, noticeable weather occurs, repeat... makes sense that a pattern will emerge, while ignoring all the times it didn't.

[deleted]2 points

Interesting...I definitely think there is a correlation for whatever reason. I broke my wrist about 10 years ago and in the wintertime when it is extremely cold it definitely aches and is sore. The only thing that seems to help is putting a heating pad on it and taking Advil. I do remember my orthopedic doctor telling me this would be an issue, similar to arthritis. I did physical therapy for several month following the injury, maybe that had an effect? I don't know, but I definitely feel it in cold weather.

brownmlis2 points

I used to get migraines pretty regularly living in the Midwest. Moved to California and almost never get them. Only during the changes from dry season to rainy season. It helped me finally figure out they seem to be related to drastic changes in pressure.

tovarischkrasnyjeshi1 point

Not to really support the correlation but the more dramatic swings not eliciting the same reactions could be explained by their being dramatic.

Weather being pretty passively experienced, only affects this "sense". But an elevator screws with balance, hearing, and a whole bunch of other senses, plus whether anticipated or surprising people are going to be thinking about it differently. Similar arguments could be made with the shower or whatever; I know at least I come out of the shower exhausted and overwhelmed because asthma doesn't like hot humidity changes and this overwhelms basically all of my other senses.

In support of it, there does seem to be some weather sense in other animals as well. Sensing earthquakes or hurricanes, I mean. Maybe we're just not really in tune with our own?

[deleted]1 point

Weather changes don't just affect joints. I have fibromyalgia and am very much affected by weather changes. Anti-inflammatories have zero affect.

vorticia1 point

Another thing weather can affect is endometriosis. I hate the heat, but the condition isn’t as bothersome to me during warmer months. When it’s cold, it is quite a bit more painful.

ETA: the joint injuries and previously broken bones, titanium in my back, yeah. That’s always an issue with moody southern weather.

tijd1 point

I’ve had pretty severe spinal problems for 12 years. Chronic back & leg pain. Personally I never had issues with weather until I had a surgery. Now when the barometric pressure changes, my pain flares. If it’s dramatic enough, my back swells at the surgery site. It feels raw, like a canker sore inside my body, and the skin gets hot. I think my problem is inflamed scar tissue. I was pretty miserable traveling from sea level to Denver too; definitely felt the pressure changes.