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Why does cold and wet weather make our aches and pains worse?

Posted by Phil Heler, MD on November 8, 2016

Buxton is 1000 feet above sea level and 2 degrees colder than Manchester. How does this affect us?

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Why does cold and wet weather make our aches and pains worse?

With the onset of winter, it is amazing how many people in Buxton mention that the onset of cold or wet weather tends to make their joint pains worse. Buxton (at 1000 feet above sea level) experiences less barometric pressure and colder weather that locations at sea level. So, is there any actual evidence to support this?

Wherever we live we have all heard anecdotal evidence (perhaps from our grandparents for instance) to support the fact that wet and cold weather leads to increase in joint pain. However, at present there are actually no definitive evidence based scientific answers to collaborate this claim.

Some hypothetical theories point towards barometric pressure as a causative factor (a measure of change in air pressure). A change, or drop, in air pressure often heralds the onset of bad weather. This theory suggests that this specific drop in the weight of atmosphere leads to a microscopic reduction in pressure exerted on body tissue. This microscopic reduction allows body tissues to expand and apply a slight increase of pressure on bony structures such as joint surfaces. Potentially if you already have joint inflammation due to arthritic conditions or injury your condition will be theoretically exacerbated. Allied to this is the fact that at 1,000 feet (300 m) above sea level, Buxton is the highest market town in England, so the barometric pressure will be less here than at sea level! This is a good theory but there is no clear scientific consensus of agreement.

Due to this relatively high elevation, Buxton tends to be cooler than surrounding towns, with daytime temperature typically around 2 °C lower than Manchester for instance. So, is there any truth that during cold weather we experience more pain in the winter months?

There are some theories that suggest that cold weather causes soft tissue (especially muscles) to contract causing a slight compression on sensitive nerve endings, thus generating a background increase in joint pain. Some theories also suggest that there is also an increase in viscosity of synovial fluid (this effectively lubricates your joints) inside your joints; this could make your joints feel more rigid and less compliant. Some findings also suggest that while our tactile senses and motor functions deteriorate in cold weather, pain perception remains unaffected (this leads to an exaggeration in pain perception). Blood vessels also seemingly constrict on cooling causing a decrease in blood flow to anatomy. One theory suggests that if nerves have a decreased blood supply an increased natural response might a greater signal to the central nervous system for initiating response.

Either way it is important to stay warm during winter and keep well wrapped up!!!