Patients will often ask why they seem to have more headaches or back pain when a low pressure system brings rain to Cayman.
It is certainly true in our office that when a low pressure system rolls in, our parking lot fills with water and our waiting room fills with patients. Why are some people human barometers and other unaffected?
Obviously, this observation is nothing new. Most of us will have experienced this phenomena first-hand or know someone who makes this claim. Questions about the cause of this phenomena date back to the 5th century in ancient Greece. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, noticed many illnesses were related to changes in the weather.
Even in the ancient Far East, the traditional Chinese medicine term for rheumatism translates to “wind-damp disease.”
A number of different physical ailments have been noticed to be particularly sensitive to weather changes. The list is topped by osteoarthritis, tension headaches, back pain and fibromyalgia.
What is it about the changing weather that could be causing an aggravation of such problems? The list of possible meteorological causes has included temperature, precipitation, humidity and increased ionization of the air. However, the biggest and most likely culprit is atmospheric pressure.
The lowered atmospheric pressure that often accompanies weather changes may have a greater effect on our bodies than many experts thought possible.
There has not been much study on this topic and the studies that have been done seem to contradict each other. Some studies have not found any correlation between weather patterns and reported pain symptoms, while other studies have been able to link changes in temperature, barometric pressure, or humidity to increased pain syndromes.
The study that lends the greatest weight to the argument for weather and joint pain was published in 2010. In that study, rats were artificially caused to have chronic inflammation in their feet. When these same rats were placed in a low-pressure chamber, they showed signs of increased foot pain.
In humans, a study that measured pain from lumbar disc disease and a study that measured knee pain severity due to osteoarthritis both concluded that depression in atmospheric pressure can cause increased pain in these conditions.
The most likely mechanism responsible for increased pain felt with reduced atmospheric pressure has to do with the expansion of fluid within our joints.
Most joints in the human body are called “synovial joints,” which means the joint is surrounded by a capsule which is filled with a liquid that lubricates the joint. When atmospheric pressure drops, it causes the fluid within the joint to expand, causing a swelling of the joint capsule.
If the joint is already swollen due to injury, this effect can be magnified.
“When the joint capsule expands, it then presses against the surrounding tissue and nerves,” says Robert Jamison, a professor of anesthesia and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “That’s probably the effect that people are feeling, particularly if those nerves are irritated in the first place”.
Patience White, vice president of the Arthritis Foundation and a rheumatologist at George Washington University School of Medicine, states that weather-related pain “is much more common in people with some sort of effusion (swelling).”
The tricky part about this explanation is that, for now, it is theoretical. The expansion of the excess fluid within the joint capsule occurs on such a small scale that it cannot be measured by any current means.
However, regardless of the actual mechanism at work, we do know that some amount of inflammation must already be present for atmospheric pressure changes to cause joint pain. Weather systems do not cause joint pain, they aggravate existing inflammatory conditions. The sufferer may have been aware of these existing conditions or they may have existed just below their pain threshold.
While some weather conditions may relieve pain, the studies do not show a consistent benefit of one climate over another. If sensitive to weather, it seems that the body will acclimatize to wherever one lives, and be sensitive to the subtle weather changes of that area.
It is a model for pain that dovetails nicely with the chiropractic approach to health of preventative healthcare. The absence of pain is not the same as being in good health.
Many of us exist in a state of injury just below our pain threshold, just waiting for that moment when something happens. Either the neck “kinks,” the low back “goes out,” or headaches develop.
While we cannot avoid bad weather, we can follow those activities and lifestyles that reduce the degree of inflammation and injury within our bodies.
Dr. Jemal Khan is a chiropractor based in the Cayman Islands.