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Something in the wind

How changes in the weather can affect our bodies and minds.

Story by Michaela Satterfield

Weather is a force so powerful that it doesn’t always take a meteorologist to predict it. There are those among us who have an uncanny talent for knowing what the sky is going to do next. Those who are able to make such predictions typically experience a physical feeling. Weather’s effect on us, however, stretches beyond this physical impact to even impacting our minds. Come rain or shine, our bodies can be the best indicators of what’s going on with the weather. Here’s an inside look at the science behind this phenomenon.

A feeling in the air

Hilton Head Island resident Charles Grace says he gets a specific feeling when it’s about to rain. “It’s all in my head. Literally,” Grace says. “If a front is four to eight hours out, I can feel it. Right between my eyes and lower forehead hurt — just general discomfort.” For Grace the pain is greater the quicker the storm builds. If the storm moves in more slowly, he experiences less pain. At its worst, he says changing weather even can cause vertigo.

The feelings are so prevalent they could take the place of weather apps. “I have always checked weather apps against my head, and it is 99.9 percent accurate,” Grace says. “There is always something out there.” Some people are inclined to follow their feelings, but what about those who need a little more proof before acting on pure instinct? As it turns out, there is some science behind it all too.

Heads in the clouds

Grace says he doesn’t remember this happening as a kid, but the fact that his brother and sister also experience something similar could indicate the sensation is genetic. However, according to an article by Deborah Lynn Blumberg on online health resource WebMD, it’s difficult for scientists to nail down what exactly the connection is between pain and the weather. Barometric pressure, humidity, precipitation and temperature are all at play.

Grace credits barometric pressure changes as the source of his weather-related pain. A study conducted by Kazuhito Kimoto and colleagues at the Dokkyo Medical University in Japan found that barometric pressure change can, in fact, worsen migraine headaches. In the study, 28 migraine patients kept a diary for one year. In tandem, researchers collected daily and monthly barometric pressure data to determine that there was a correlation in declining pressure and increasing headaches.

Another study by Kayoko Ozeki of the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan and colleagues found a relationship between sales of a headache medication called loxoprofen and barometric pressure. As pressure decreased, sales increased. This indicates that more people experienced headaches. 

The pressure is on

In addition to weather-related headaches, many experience weather-related joint pain too. Tim McAlindon and colleagues conducted a study published in The American Journal of Medicine that analyzed both pain reports and weather data over the course of three months. They discovered an independent association between osteoarthritis knee pain and barometric pressure changes. According to Blumberg there are many theories about why this may be so. For example, pressure changes could make muscles expand and contract, causing joint pain. Another theory is that low temperatures can increase the thickness of fluid inside joints, thus making the joints stiffer.

Others say we can’t yet conclude there is a connection at all. A study by Anupam B. Jena, Ruth L. Newhouse associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues didn’t find a correlation between joint or back pain and rainfall. However, they determined there could still be a relation, so further studies are needed. 

In an article titled “What’s Up With That: People Feel the Weather in Their Bones” found on the website WIRED, writer Nick Stockton comments on why the theories are inconclusive at this point. “As the researchers point out,” he said, “figuring out exactly what is happening inside a joint as barometric pressure rises or falls would require some fairly invasive procedures. So the definitive study hasn’t yet been done.”

Mixed feelings

Mental health isn’t left untouched by the weather either. Counselor Lillian Davis said there are times when she suspects weather changes may be the culprit of clients’ issues. When this happens, she tells them to keep track of the weather and any effects – whether pain, headaches or moods. “Often just the knowledge that weather changes are impacting them helps them cope with it,” Davis said. 

If she thinks a client could be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Davis refers them to their primary-care physician. According to an article by Debra Fulghum Bruce on WebMD, this mood disorder occurs most often in the winter. It’s not clear what the exact cause is, but some scientists believe the lack of sunlight in the winter causes hormonal changes that lead to this seasonal depression.