It’s been two hours since picking up the latest sci-fi novel that is stealing attention from everyday happenings. While digesting this book, subconsciously rubbing the back of your neck, the feeling of achiness sets in.
A view out the windows shows that, as usual, the throbbing neck portells a coming storm. Oh sure… you’ve heard the stories – from aching knees to throbbing backs – predicting the soon-to-be-storms.
But – is this normal? Is there any scientific evidence that weather actually can cause pain? And… why is it that some of us seem to be greatly affected by weather and others could care less?
HOW WEATHER AFFECTS JOINT AND NECK PAIN
Does the weather make a difference in chronic neck pain levels? Pretty soon, cooler weather will be settling in as fall approaches. Is there a connection between this cooler weather and the “human barometer”… and why winter may not be so much fun for those of us suffering from neck pain, aching joints and aching bones.
There’s an app on my phone that has all the usual weather data. What is unusual, however, is that it includes an “aches and pains” prediction in its forecast… although how accurate this forecast really is – is up for debate.
Can one’s joints really predict the weather? Does the winter chill really “get into the bones?” Can the weather actually make neck pain worse?
Questions like this have puzzled scientists for many years… and have driven some of them to conduct studies in order to determine people’s’ susceptibility to weather changes.
Many people claim to be able to predict the weather based on their aching bones, stiff necks and painful joints. Unfortunately, research does not back up the claims of these human barometers… with a 1997 study by Drake finding that patients could not accurately predict the weather simply based on their joint aches. Still – there is PLENTY of anecdotal evidence… meaning that the debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon. Recently, there is a growing body of evidence showing that weather does affect the joints… whether patients are able to predict this or not.
WHAT THE RESEARCH REALLY SHOWS
Two weather factors that research focus on are temperature and barometric pressure (air pressure). Cold temperatures appear to be connected with an increase in musculoskeletal issues – including neck pain. A study in 2008 by Piedrahita looked at those working in subarctic Alaska in very, very cold conditions (- 43 to – 62 Celsius). About 21% of the workers suffered pain in the neck. It was recommended that the workers wear heavier protective clothing… but that placed additional strain on the muscles needed to carry out their work. Talk about a catch 22!
In 2007, Schiller reported on an interesting case where neck pain was caused by low temperatures… but through a different mechanism. The patient’s pain was caused by the the cold causing stenosis (narrowing) of the external carotid arteries. In this case, the patient’s pain was treated by doing a “roto-rooter” job on these arteries.
Cold temperatures have also been known to cause pain in those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis… but not osteoarthritis. Perhaps that is due to the mangling of joints that often occurs in rheumatoid arthritis. In particular, cold and damp weather raised pain levels – whereas warm, dry conditions lessened neck pain levels.
The most researched weather aspect is barometric pressure… with specific research trying to link joint pain to air pressure. No specific mechanism has been found… but the main premise is that external air pressure causes changes in the pressure of the joints in the body (e.g. in the synovial fluid)… which leads to compression of the nerves and blood vessels in the cervical spine. This is similar to when you crack your neck or joints… the relief from this feeling of increased pressure can feel great!
OSTEOARTHRITIS AND THE WEATHER
A 2004 study by Verges found more arthritic pain when air pressure fell below certain levels (as with a coming storm)… but were not significantly affected by temperature changes. In the same study, rheumatoid arthritis patients were not affected by the pressure changes… but did experience more pain when temperatures fell. The difference between the two groups remains unexplained – but many other studies have also reached inconsistent findings too.
AIR PRESSURE, OXYGEN AND FATIGUE
The oxygen content of the air is related to air pressure. As the pressure does down – there is a lower concentration of oxygen for us to breathe. This means that our bodies become more easily fatigued… and are able to do less work before neck pain, exhaustion and cramps set in. While this is rarely a big problem, since air pressure changes are mostly quite small, it may mean that low energy people (sufferers of fibromyalgia and neck pain, among others) may have more severe and frequent neck pain and other musculoskeletal symptoms.
DEPRESSION, NECK PAIN AND NUTRITION
Did you ever hear of “seasonal nutritional deficiencies?” Think of too many Halloween treats or too many Christmas cookies. Anyway… these deficiencies are sometimes linked to mood disorders, such as depression. Many people have the “winter blues” where they feel depressed… have low energy levels and may have an exaggerated response to pain. Depression was found to lower the pain tolerance – particularly in fibromyalgia cases (2008, Klauenberg)… which often led to neck pain and tenderness.
Way back in 1944, a military doctor named T.G. Heaton wrote a report about soldiers suffering from joint pain but with no clinical signs. He noted that cold, damp weather worsens the suffering. Those who are depressed or suffering from low mood are often said to be “under the weather”. Since depression rates rise over the winter months, maybe there is a longer term connection to look at rather than just a day-by-day correlation.
WINTER MONTHS AND CHRONIC NECK/JOINT PAIN
Depressed people may have exaggerated responses by their immune system to threats… with increased inflammation that could lead to neck and joint pain. It’s worth noting that Vitamin D3 levels also tend to plummet during winter… which can affect mood, the immune system and joints and bones. This may be one of the reasons for more severe and long-lasting pain in the neck and joints.
One of the more extreme examples of weather affecting our joints is in “familial cold autoinflammatory syndrome” (FCAS)… in which cold can cause a rash, fever and joint/neck pain. While this is very rare… it has a cousin called cold urticaria… which has similar symptoms. These symptoms often are similar to meningitis… which must be ruled out to stop the possibility of long-term disability or death.
Living in a damp, dark and wet place may contribute to chronic neck pain in a variety of ways. Perhaps a pilgrimage to Florida is in order… or a cruise to a warm local trips your fancy. Gotta’ get those D3 levels up somehow :-).
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article… where we’ll look at 4 facts about weather and neck pain!
PS: If you would like more information on ways to treat chronic neck pain… we are offering a FREE “Chronic Neck Pain Survival Guide” E-book for a limited time. It has tips, tricks and pain hacks to get fast and permanent relief. Just click here.