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Do Barometric Pressure Changes Trigger Pain?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

barometric pressure headaches

Story at-a-glance -

  • As pressure in the atmosphere rises and falls, the pressure exerted against your body changes as well. Seniors and those under chronic stress may experience an increased pain response
  • Migraine headaches and joint pain are two of the more common conditions affected by barometric pressure
  • Masking the pain with drugs may increase your risk of side effects; I recommend working with your health care provider to identify the source and relieve it
  • Underlying causes of pain may include magnesium deficiency, poor posture and lack of exercise. Helpful strategies include reducing sugar, protecting gut health and supporting melatonin production

You may know that as you spend time outside on a sunny day, it improves your mood and allows your body to produce vitamin D. Some people enjoy warm weather and others appreciate the winter snow. But regardless of your preference, when the sun is out you may feel better without realizing it.

Many people feel they can identify when the weather is changing. Barometric pressure is one measurement meteorologists use to describe current weather and predict future conditions.1

Barometric pressure is a measurement of atmospheric pressure, or the weight of the atmosphere above the planet. A barometer is used to measure the pressure, which is stated in units of mercury. At sea level, barometric pressure is measured as 760 mm of mercury. A barometer measures pressure of the atmosphere against the earth, so the measurement changes at different elevations.

A meteorologist then uses a formula to compare barometric pressure against the reading at sea level. High pressure causes the atmosphere to drop toward the earth, reducing cloud cover and creating clear, dry conditions. Low pressure happens when the ground is warm, heating the surface air and causing it to rise.

As the air expands it also cools. Since warmer air holds more water vapor than cooler air, as the air temperature drops the air condenses, leading to rain or storms. When a meteorologist predicts falling barometric pressure it suggests rain is moving into the area.

Falling Barometric Pressure Creates Pressure Difference

As the pressure in the atmosphere rises or falls, the same thing happens to the pressure against your body. When a low barometric pressure front arrives, it may cause areas of your body to swell.2 People who suffer with chronic stress may be more attuned to weather changes. Seniors may also be more sensitive to barometric changes, as the ability to combat this challenge declines with age.

So, when your elderly aunt says she can feel a storm coming in her bones, she probably can. The changes in pressure accompanying shifts in weather may have a measurable effect on joint pain and headaches. In answer to a question about headache pain, Dr. Matthew Fink, neurologist in chief at New York Presbyterian Hospital, commented to The New York Times:3

"Differences in air pressure because of the weather or changes in altitude can have noticeable effects on the human body, though some people are more sensitive than others. Low barometric pressure can cause headaches by creating a pressure difference between the surrounding atmosphere and the sinuses, which are filled with air. That leads to distended sinuses, especially if there is any congestion or blockage."

With less pressure against the body, the pressure differences may trigger headaches. As reported in a study published in the journal Internal Medicine,4 researchers enrolled 28 patients who suffered migraine headaches. They were asked to keep a diary for the course of a year, recording their headache pain.

Their recordings were compared to barometric pressure data from the local meteorological observatory. The researchers found a correlation between the frequency of headaches and small reductions in atmospheric pressure, which were measured two days before and two days after headache onset.

Participant diary data showed the frequency increased when the barometric pressure dropped from the day the headache occurred to the day after, and the frequency reduced as the barometric pressure rose. They concluded that pressure changes may be an exacerbating factor in migraine headaches.

The authors of a second study5 found similar results, when 20 migraine headache sufferers were asked to keep an hourly pain log for 14 days. Whether there is an effect on your blood pressure measurement from the weather is still a subject of study, however. The Mayo Clinic6 writes that blood pressure typically increases in the winter months and may go up or down in reaction to abrupt changes in atmospheric pressure in the same way.

In a study of the effect of temperature and barometric pressure in 333 men and women with Stage 1 high blood pressure, researchers discovered no variability associated with barometric pressure changes. They did find variability associated with temperature and concluded that cold weather could increase blood pressure variability, complicating diagnosis and management.7

Pressure and Temperature May Affect Your Joint Pain

It is also common to hear people predict the weather based on changes in joint pain. Falling barometric pressure may increase the risk of joint swelling, but to date no clear association has been found to explain an increase.

In one study8 of 200 participants who had knee osteoarthritis, researchers recorded daily values for temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, precipitation and relative humidity. The participants were located across the U.S. and the data were recorded for three months. The researchers found a consistent association between barometric pressure changes, ambient temperature and pain severity.

This remained after the data were adjusted for age, gender, body mass index and pain medication use, including opioids. They concluded "barometric pressure and ambient temperature are independently associated with osteoarthritis knee pain severity."

In a second systematic review of observational studies,9 researchers looked at the association between weather and joint pain in those suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. An overall analysis of all studies showed nearly no association between temperature, relative humidity and atmospheric pressure and pain.

However, data from two studies showed a minority of patients were influenced by one or more of the criteria. They concluded the information to date had not shown any consistent effect, yet evidence did suggest pain in some individuals was likely affected by the weather.

Citizen Scientists Measure Weather and Pain Relationship

A research team from the University of Manchester10 undertook a unique data gathering study when they published a smartphone app to recruit participants. During the 12-month recruiting period, it was downloaded by 13,207 people in the U.K.

Participants were asked to record daily pain intensity and GPS locations on their phone, which linked their location to local weather data. At the end of the study, the researchers had 2,658 participants included in the analysis. The data revealed that an increase in relative humidity and wind speed was associated with a higher potential for pain.

The potential for pain reduced with an increase in atmospheric pressure. Temperature did not have a significant association with pain in this study. Based on the data, the effect on pain could not be explained by mood or physical activity. The team wrote the study validated that an individual's perception of their pain was associated with the weather.

Opioids Are Not the Answer to Chronic Pain

Barometric weather changes may influence your joint pain. Turning to opioids for pain management is not the answer. Before the mid-1980s, these pain killers were not frequently prescribed, as physicians feared their patients would become dependent on highly addictive drugs.

By 2017, there were 1.7 million who suffered from a substance abuse problem related to a prescription opioid painkiller. During the same year, 47,600 deaths were recorded from an opioid overdose and at least 130 died every day in 2016 and 2017 from an opioid-related overdose.

Before you accept a prescription for an opioid painkiller, consider if you would use heroin to treat the type of pain you're experiencing. Opioid painkillers are essentially prescription strength, legal heroin drugs with the same addictive properties and potential to destroy your life.

It is important to remember that pain is your body's way of communicating something is wrong. I recommend working with your health care provider to identify the source of it. Often if you're able to relieve the source, it can relieve the pain. Consider the following non-pharmacological options to reduce inflammation and pain long-term.

Nondrug Options Lessen Pain Without Risky Side Effects

Magnesium deficiency — Migraine headaches are one health condition associated with barometric weather changes. While the exact mechanism behind migraine headaches has not been identified, researchers have found those who suffer likely have a magnesium deficiency.

Magnesium deficiency is also associated with depression, platelet aggression, serotonin receptor function and influence in the production and use of neurotransmitters.

Posture and Exercise — Sitting for long hours contributes to tightening muscles, placing undue pressure on your lower back, hip and knee joints. Using simple strategies to strengthen your core muscles and sitting properly, you help reduce underlying mechanical reasons for joint pain.

Acupuncture and Emotional Freedom Techniques — One of the most common uses of acupuncture is to treat pain conditions. Those undergoing acupuncture report a 50% reduction in pain, compared to 28% receiving standard treatment without acupuncture.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) work on the same principles but can be done at home or in public as needed. EFT may be used for a number of conditions, including pain, headaches, anxiety and depression.

Reduce Inflammation — Inflammation increases the pain response. By taking steps to reduce inflammation you affect pain and your overall health. Reduce or eliminate sugar and carbohydrates, as these trigger inflammation. Gluten may speed the development of inflammation, damaging the lining of your small intestines and lead to negative effects on your joints, liver and nervous system.

Your gut is vital to your immune system and the inflammatory response. You can protect your gut health by eating fermented foods and practicing intermittent fasting. Boost your production of melatonin using good sleep hygiene. This helps support your mitochondria and reduces inflammation. Consider using essential oils or turmeric to help reduce inflammation and treat pain.