Many people with pain have reported several examples of how their pain is affected by the weather. Think about these questions and see if you can relate:
- Do you find that your muscles and joints are more stiff and painful during the winter months or if you are in an air conditioned room for very long?
- Do you feel that your experience more pain flares during the change of seasons particularly during the spring and autumn months?
- Can you tell that it will rain because your pain is more difficult to ease?
- Is your pain more unstable when it is warm and dry one day and cold and rainy the next?
- Does your pain get better or worse during extreme heat waves?
- Does your pain change during the full moon?
- Do you find yourself more sad and less in control of your pain when the sun has not shined for several days or more?
There is a field of science that studies the effect of weather on our health, called human biometeorology which studies the relationship between atmospheric conditions and people. Some researchers are interested in looking at the possible connections between atmospheric conditions — like temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity — and painful conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and sinus or migraine headaches. The challenge is that these connections are not as obvious and the mechanism that would cause the symptom is not easily known.
Weather Changes and Headaches
Research has shown that when weather changes it can trigger migraines in those who are headache prone—one particular survey revealed that 53 percent of the respondents stated that the “weather” triggered their headache cycles. A drop in the barometric pressure before a storm, a sharp increase in humidity during a heat wave and a sudden drop in temperature with a cold front – all can serve a headache triggers.
So, is there a solution? Living in a location where the weather is more stable, less humid and less cold may help reduce the frequency of migraines. Yet, it is not practical to think that everyone who is headache prone can uproot themselves to move to the desert. What you can do is keep a record of your pain flares. Also, take note on the current weather. If there is a connection, share this information with your health care provider. He/she can work with you to create a pain treatment plan that you can adjust when the weather change is forecasted.
Joint and Muscle Pain during the cold, rainy season
Whether called a “snow bird” or “winter Texan”, a primary reason why northern elders prefer to spend the cold season or move permanently to warm southern climates is the effect of the cold and damp weather on their joints. Studies have shown that there is a relationship of joint pain due to the inflammation of arthritis and the weather. Average daily pain increases when there is a drop in temperature and a change in humidity. 80-90 percent of elders report a higher level of pain and a greater sensitivity to that pain. This relates to anyone at any age with arthritic or inflammatory pain conditions.
What can you do? Keeping your joints moving, using non-weight bearing exercises, staying warm and working with your health care provider to create an effective pain care plan can make a critical difference.
Fibromyalgia and Changes in Weather
According to a internet survey conducted by the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA), “2,596 people living with fibromyalgia reported that weather changes ranked second as a perceived aggravating factor for their symptoms with an increase in pain or stiffness. Many feel as if they are forced to live at the whim of the weather. A stormy day is enough to trigger a weeklong flare-up and winters seem to last forever. When cold temperatures roll around, you dash for electric blankets, heating pads and sweaters, venturing outdoors dressed like Sasquatch.”
Research is limited on the weather connection which frustrates health care providers and their patients who are searching for solutions.
Pain, the sun and vitamin D
The most important source of vitamin D is the sun (Vitamin D3). Vitamin D is also found in pasteurized, homogenized cow milk and cheese products. However, this form is vitamin D2 (a synthetic additive) absorbs in your body much more slowly (by 500 percent) than the natural Vitamin D3 that comes from the sun. Also, Vitamin D2 is not well absorbed without the sufficient amount of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus found in the diet or with supplements.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a many physical ailments, particularly to musculoskeletal pain and depression. The most common cause of musculoskeletal pain in the elder population living in extended living facilities has been due to Vitamin D Deficiency.
A 2003 study published by the Mayo Clinic reported findings that a much higher incidence of vitamin D deficiency occurred in patients with unexplained muscle and skeletal pain than was expected, regardless of age. Every African American, East African, Latino and Native American study participant were vitamin D deficient, as were all of those under the age of 30. The biggest surprise was that the worst vitamin D deficiencies occurred in young people — especially women of childbearing age.
Testing those with unexplained pain for vitamin D status and treating the deficiency may help decrease or eliminate that pain as well as lowering risks for other diseases, like certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes and depression. For example:
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD was first described in 1984 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Referred to many names, like winter depression or blues, it was later re-categorized as an indication of major depression. People experience changes in mood during the cold, cloudy winter months where there was not enough sunlight, as the days grew shorter and many chose to stay indoors to avoid the cold. These individuals limit their exposure to the needed sunlight to maintain adequate Vitamin D3 levels. This is more prevalent in the colder northern regions as compared to warmer climates. Since pain and mood are closely tied—someone with pain, who is vulnerable to SAD, may find their pain more difficult to relieve that may in turn increase the depth of depression.
How can this be corrected or prevented? Food, supplements, sun
Replacing vitamin D through foods or supplements is challenging. A glass of fortified milk or fortified orange juice contains around 100 international units (IU) of vitamin D and a multivitamin typically has 400 IU. Researchers state that most people may need about 1000 IU of vitamin D each day, whereas the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin D varies with age, sex, and various medical conditions but in general is 200-600 IU per day. There is a disconnect.
There are other sources of vitamin D in:
- Cod Liver Oil. 1 tablespoon=1360 IU of vitamin D (our great grandmothers were right)
- Salmon. 3 ounces=425 IU of vitamin D
- Herring. 3 ounces=765 IU of vitamin D
- Sardines. Canned, 3 ounces=255 IU of vitamin D
- Multivitamins: 200-400 IU of vitamin D daily.
Sun Exposure can be good for you! Researchers say that it takes a light-skinned person wearing a swimsuit at the beach about the time for the skin to turn slightly pink to absorb about 20,000 IU of vitamin D. The amount of sun exposure needed to get the proper dose of vitamin D does depends on your skin type, where you live, and time of year, and time of day the exposure occurs. So at an average it would take about five minutes each day of unprotected exposure to get all the vitamin D necessary for most.
It is challenging for people living in northern climates to get the vitamin D needed from the sun in the winter. Getting outside for a few minutes a day without sun protection, especially when the sun is shining can do a world of good. (Caution: Dermatologists remain concerned about unprotected sun exposure and the risk for skin cancers)
There are continued reports that the weather affects pain with other conditions. The research is sadly lacking. This is an opportunity for TPC and others to continue the conversation and urge NIH and clinical researchers to include this topic in their research agenda.
Lurie, Stephen J.; et al. (November 2006). Seasonal Affective Disorder,. American Family Physician 74 (9): 1521–4, http://www.aafp.org/afp/2006/1101/p1521.html; Accessed March 15, 2013
Mayo Clinic Staff, Seasonal Affective Disorder, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=symptoms: Accessed March 15, 2013
MedicineNet.Com. Aches, Pains & Weather, http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52133; Accessed March 15, 2013
National Fibromyalgia Association, Moving Away from Fibromyalgia, http://fmaware.org/site/News2211c.html?page=NewsArticle&id=7705&news_iv_ctrl=-1; Accessed March 15, 2013
Natural News, The Effects of Weather on Health…, http://www.naturalnews.com/025512_health_weather_brain.html: Accessed March 15, 2013
University Specialty Clinics, Fact or Myth, Weather Affects Arthritic Joint Pain, http://specialtyclinics.med.sc.edu/joint_pain.asp; Accessed March 15, 2013
WebMD, The Weather: Wreaking havoc on health, http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/the-weather-wreaking-havoc-on-health: Accessed March 15, 2013
WebMD, Lack of Vitamin D Linked to Pain, http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20031210/lack-of-vitamin-d-linked-to-pain; Accessed March 15, 2013