Human Barometers Lucas J. Mire, weather.com
Many might think it’s an old wives’ tale, but according to doctors who specialize in chronic pain, patients say they can literally feel the weather in their bones.
“My mom used to say that if her shoulder was hurting in the evening, it would be raining by the morning, and you could usually count on it,” said Tom Fleenor, whose late mother suffered with arthritis. “If it didn’t rain, it would at least be damp and overcast. She was almost always right.”
Freda Elkind, a resident at the North Shore Hotel in Evanston, Ill., says she’s practically a human barometer. Instead of using weather models, Elkind uses her aches and pains to forecast the weather.
“I know when it’s going to rain,” she said. “I know about the weather before I see it.”
Other residents at the North Shore Hotel note that when the barometric pressure goes down, their pain goes up. Their arthritis goes into overdrive right before a storm hits.
“Here, you can always hear someone saying it’s going to rain tomorrow,” laughed Joy O’Laughlin. “It’s pretty common with us old folks.”
Despite a lack of a proven scientific connection between weather changes and the onset of aches and pains, doctors who specialize in chronic pain can’t dismiss the notion.
“Their pain is real,” said Dr. Richard Pope, Chief of Rheumatology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who cites a study done in 1960 to back up his claim. In the study, 12 patients were placed in a chamber in which the barometric pressure and humidity were adjusted. Eleven of the participants had a reaction to the changing conditions.
“When the pressure became low and the humidity was high, patients sensed their joint pain a lot more,” Pope said.
Another study conducted in 1985 by Dr. John T. Sibley suggested that there was no connection between weather patterns and their symptoms. Sibley concluded that people are simply less likely to feel the pain on days when it’s warm and sunny.
“I think the warm weather makes you feel better. And if you do have a little ache and it’s warm, it doesn’t seem as bad,” said one arthritis sufferer.
People with joint injuries, previously broken bones and multiple sclerosis also report a proficiency at “armchair meteorology.”
Washington, D.C., City Council member Sharon Ambrose has MS and says she almost always feels pain in her lower body, but weather can exacerbate her discomfort.
“My body tells me when it’s going to rain, and that is, in my view, bizarre,” she said. “This never happened before I was diagnosed with a neurological disease.”
What is barometric pressure, anyway?
It’s clear that barometric pressure changes have an impact on many with chronic pain, but what exactly is this weather term describing?
“Most people don’t think that air has weight, but air is made of molecules and those molecules do have a measurable weight,” said Colin Marquis, a senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel. “When we talk about barometric pressure, we’re talking about that weight. The only reason it is called barometric pressure is because a barometer is used to measure it.”
Barometric fluctuations are prevalent in the middle latitudes, where much of the world’s population calls home, but Marquis says that less changes on the barometer will be observed at the equator or the poles.
“Highs and lows and fronts move across weather maps,” he said. “The weather’s always doing something.”
And it’s almost always doing something to those who suffer with aches and pains, said Pope.
“You take a balloon and you put it into a vacuum. As the pressure is reduced around that balloon, it expands,” he explained. “And so the same thing within the tissues around the joints. If there’s already swelling, inflammation, abnormal mechanics in the joint, as the pressure goes down, the gas and tissue expand, and this is felt as more pain by the patient. This is why they sense a change in barometric pressure.”