Does Cold Weather Really Increase Your Pain?

The Research, My Opinion, and 3 Suggestions

Cold Weather Causes Pain

It’s been cold lately. I know it’s that time of year, so it’s supposed to be cold, but this year seems to be more frigid than usual. I live in Southern California, so when I say cold, I’m talking 48 degrees when I get in my car in the morning. Of course by the afternoon it’s back up to 67, but still, the struggle is real. Even more real is the struggle my Physical Therapy patients are going through with the weather change. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear about how the cold weather is making their pain worse – and they want to know why?

Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing – why does cold weather seem to make pain worse?

Well, I’ll do my best to provide a logical answer here…

Weather and Pain – What Does the Research Say?

In 1997, a systematic review of literature1 regarding pain related to weather changes was conducted. They found no proof across 16 studies that offered conclusive evidence of a correlation between weather changes and joint pain.

However, in 2007, researchers from Tufts University ran a study2 with a group of 200 individuals with knee arthritis. They were looking to see if there was a change in pain associated with changes in weather. What they found was that pain severity in people with knee osteoarthritis is, in fact, modestly influenced by the weather. Their study concluded that an increase in barometric pressure was associated with increased pain. Additionally, a decrease in ambient temperature was associated with increased pain.

So, all in all, the research seems to be fairly inconclusive. Many say there is no correlation between weather and pain, some say there is. But that doesn’t coincide with the majority of people’s experiences that I come across on a daily basis. Something is leading people to complain about an increase in pain with colder weather.

Here’s What Makes Sense To Me…

When the weather becomes cold, not only does the temperature change, but the barometric pressure changes, too. This change in atmospheric pressure causes a pressure change in your joints, as well3. The increase in pressure can increase stiffness and cause small movements to occur within the joint that can potentially lead to pain – especially in joints that are inflamed (common in arthritis).

As you may know from watching the news, there is typically an increase in barometric pressure just prior to and during rainy weather. This makes sense seeing that many individuals with joint pain say they are often able to predict the rain.

Your body is also made up of a bunch of structures like muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, etc. that all have different densities. Cold temperatures and damp weather can affect the contraction and expansion of these structures in different ways. If there are micro-traumas in any of these structures and contraction or expansion occurs, a pain response could potentially result.

And finally, the least nerdy explanation…

Cold, rainy weather can affect your mood – it’s science. There is the possibility that a change in mood can indirectly affect your perception of pain. Makes sense to me.

So, with all of this newfound knowledge, you may be wondering what you can do about it? Well, here you go…

3 Steps To Combat the Cold

Beside moving to Florida, here are some steps you can take to combat the cold.

  1. ICE: yes, you read that correctly…this may sound counter-intuitive, but let me explain. Much of the time there is inflammation that accompanies joint pain. Remember, with the change in weather, it is the barometric pressure that changes the pressure in your joints, not the temperature. ICE is an anti-inflammatory. Decreasing the inflammation in your painful joint with ICE will also decrease the pressure, therefore decreasing pain (hopefully).

  2. Move: stiffness from the cold leads to more stiffness if you don’t move. Get up and get moving. Plain and simple.

  3. Plan Fun Activities: this is so your mood will be elevated instead of depressed from the gloom. There are too many fun ideas to list here, and fun is relative to each individual. Two suggestions that are universally fun for the masses: playing with kids or animals.

So, when the forecast calls for rain and the temperature drops, make plans ahead of time for playful activities that involve plenty of movement and exercise. Be sure, also to have ICE packs ready to go to decrease any inflammation that could be contributing to your pain. If the cold of the ICE is too much to handle, sit next to a heater, bundle up with blankets and drink some hot cocoa – whatever you need to do to bear the freeze.

I hope these recommendations help you get through the rest of this cold season and prepare for the next one.

Question: What do you do to cope with the cold? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  1. Quick DC. Joint pain and weather. A critical review of the literature. Minn Med. 1997;80(3):25-29 ↩︎
  2. McAlindon, et al. Changes in Barometric Pressure and Ambient Temperature Influence Osteoarthritis Pain.The American Journal of Medicine, Vol 120, No 5, May 2007
  3. Wingstrand H, Wingstrand A, Krantz P. Intracapsular and atmospheric pressure in the dynamics and stability of the hip. A biomechanical study. Acta Orthop Scand. 1990;61(3):231-235 ↩︎
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Melinda Maul

    Thank you for the explanation I have been missing!

    • Michael Curtis

      You’re welcome Melinda, I’m glad you found it helpful!

  • LD Woods

    Great post. Quick question though, you mentioned ice as an anti inflammatory and it could help decrease your inflammation. Do you have a source for that? I was under the impression ice “slows” down the accumulation of inflammatory cells, but can also work to close/restrict lymphatic vessels. But basically, I would love if you could shoot me or let me know which source you used for the ice solution.

    • Michael Curtis

      Thanks LD. As far as ice being anti-inflammatory, it’s well known that ice is a vasoconstrictor. Not sure the difference you’re suggesting that ice slows down the accumulation of inflammatory cells. Wouldn’t this reduce inflammation?

      • LD Woods

        Maybe it’s just semantics. But I see slowing down and reducing as two separate things. Meaning reducing is like decreasing making something smaller, while slowing down is limiting something from growing (maintenance so to say). But the reason I brought the question up is because I’ve found some evidence to say that ice is detrimental to reducing inflammation.

        • Michael Curtis

          I came across a few articles about this in my research, as well. What I saw was opinion based and not eveidence based, though. If you have a link to evidence based research regarding this, I’d be interested in seeing it!

          • LD Woods

            Ok, just wanted to pick your brain. I’m always trying to stay up to date, but I’ll see if I can locate some again, it’s been a few years.