Grandma could predict an approaching storm when her joints ached, and she might have been onto something. Similarly, people with chronic back pain may notice a change in how they feel as the seasons change or weather shifts. But the connection between weather and spine pain isn’t well defined, and several reasons play into why a person might feel pain based on where they live or the season.
“I don’t see a lot of research about how weather affects specific spinal conditions because it is so multi-factorial,” said Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) and chiropractor in Griffin, GA. “But I’ve advised patients semi-jokingly after they’ve broken an ankle that they will be able to predict weather and amaze friends.”
While some spinal conditions have a clear link to weather (for instance, cold weather has been found to irritate sciatica), weather’s effect on pain may be more complex.
A Look at One Study Linking Weather and Osteoarthritis
Dr. Hayden said a 2014 European study examined differences in perceived joint pain between older people with osteoarthritis (OA) who said they were weather-sensitive versus those who did not. The study participants came from 6 European countries with different climates.
“More than two-thirds of the participants said weather affected their OA pain,” Dr. Hayden said. “The researchers found that people from warmer climates—the Southern Europeans—were more weather sensitive than those from Northern Europe, and weather sensitivity was also more prevalent among woman and people with anxiety conditions.”
Weather and seasonal changes can alter how we feel mentally and emotionally—and there’s a definite link between depression and back pain.
Dr. Hayden specifically noted the shift from warmer months into colder ones as a time when depression and other health problems peak.
Winter brings cloudier weather, which increases secretion of melatonin from the brain’s pineal gland, Dr. Hayden said. Melatonin makes people drowsier and less energetic. On the other hand, Dr. Hayden said sunlight increases serotonin, which makes you happy. And, when the weather is gloomy and their energy is zapped, people don’t spend much time outside.
“Outdoor activity and exercise helps with joint pain,” Dr. Hayden said. “But when seasonal changes keep you inside, you will hurt more.” Dr. Hayden also said the seasonal change to winter means the holiday season is upon us, which may bring its own set of challenges.
“The holidays are very stressful to a lot of people,” he said. “It seems like there are a rash of heart attacks during the holidays. Lots of people have lost loved ones during the holiday season—and the changes in weather are reminders of that.”
More Theories on Weather and Back Pain
While the literature on weather and back pain is limited, Dr. Hayden said some evidence suggests that seasonal drops in temperature may affect the viscosity of synovial fluid in joints. This could be one explanation why people with spinal joint pain experience a flare-up during cold weather. “Synovial fluid is the joint’s lubricant,” Dr. Hayden said. “Just like with a car, you want to warm it up when the weather is cold because the oil is thick and doesn’t lubricate as well—it’s the same thing with synovial fluid.”
Dr. Hayden said that the structures within your joints—tendons, ligaments, muscle, and other connective tissues—each have different densities and react differently to temperature changes. “When it’s cold, some of those connective tissues may be looser than others,” he said. “Those that are tighter may take longer to warm up, and they may produce joint dysfunction.”
Another thought is that barometric pressure changes could be the culprit. It’s this theory that supports the notion that people with joint pain can predict when it’s going to rain. “One rheumatologist said to think of the joint capsule and surrounding tissues in the joint as being a balloon,” Dr. Hayden said. “Barometric pressure squeezes on that balloon, so if the pressure drops—which happens when a cold front moves in—then the balloon in your joints expands. That inflammation can cause pain.”
One final theory that Dr. Hayden shared anecdotally but has not been confirmed in research is the idea that mold from rain can contribute to back pain. “I’m in the southeastern United States, and some of my patients tell me that their pain gets worse not only when it’s gets colder, but after it rains,” he said. Dr. Hayden hypothesized that rain gets trapped beneath the carpet of dead leaves under trees, causing mold to rise into the air.
“I wonder if mold spores that fill the air a few days after a rain produce widespread allergies and an inflammatory response, heightening pain perception,” he said. “I think that’s possible, particularly down here in the south.”
Should You Move to a Warmer Climate for Back Pain Relief?
Several mental, emotional, and physical factors play into pain perception, and moving to a sunny locale may not be the answer. However, Dr. Hayden said warmer climates have been long thought to be healthier for several conditions. “You are more likely to be in the sun, so you’re more likely to be sucking up vitamin D, which is good for bones and joints,” he said. “You’re more likely to be in a better mood and stay physically active.”
But, if moving to a year-round warm climate isn’t an option, lifestyle changes (like the tips noted below) are typically enough to do the trick, Dr. Hayden said. He also said certain clinical treatments, like an infrared sauna, help capture the benefits of the sun even during the darkest winter days.
“Many of my patients in chronic pain feel relatively pain-free and relaxed after sitting in an infrared sauna,” he said. Unlike harmful ultraviolet rays, infrared light is healthy light from the sun. “This light penetrates deeply into your tissues, warms you, makes your connective tissue stretchier,” he said. “Connective tissue that moves better, hurts less.”
6 Ways to Keep Weather-Related Pain at Bay
You don’t need to move to a sunny climate for the sake of your back. Dr. Hayden said you can minimize weather’s effects on how you feel with these tips:
- Watch your diet. Dr. Hayden recommended reducing your consumption of inflammation-inducing foods, such as red meats, fried foods, sugars, and processed starches. Also, eliminate tobacco use.
- Stay hydrated. Alcoholic beverages not only dehydrate you, they worsen depression and anxiety. Dr. Hayden said drinking plenty of water is important for your spine, and it’s something often overlooked in seniors. “The thirst center is not nearly as sensitive in an older adult as it is in a younger person, and they can dehydrate in a hurry.”
- Keep warm. Layer clothing or keep your house warm to shake the winter chill. But, Dr. Hayden also noted that you should keep a humidifier running with heat to help prevent respiratory problems caused by the effect of dry heat on your sinuses.
- Get out in the sunlight on a regular basis. Natural light helps wards off depression, and it improves productivity in the workplace, Dr. Hayden said.
- Exercise. “Physical activity is huge, particularly with low back conditions,” Dr. Hayden said. His exercise of choice is walking, which he said engages the postural muscles in the spine.
- Find a good hobby. A hobby gives you a diversion from your pain—it releases endorphins, your natural painkillers. Dr. Hayden said he’s personally seen the benefits of this tip: “When I’m playing my music, I don’t feel my low back pain. A hobby gives you a focus besides what you’re feeling.”