Can Your Joints Predict the Weather?

As a physical therapist, there are a couple of things that I have found really interesting as I have worked with patients who had recently had surgery. Now, as the patient myself, I am finding these same phenomena within my own body, though I really wasn’t thinking about these things until I experienced them myself. Here they are:

  1. The pain worsening with a storm: Ok, so you might know someone who can predict when a heavy snowfall or rainstorm is coming. As a physical therapist, I thought it was strange at first when I had an elderly woman come in with a recent total knee arthroplasty (total knee replacement) and she told me that her knee was really sore that day, probably because there was a storm coming in. I laughed, but the rain came. After years of seeing many clients come in predicting the weather better than the local weather channel, I realized there must be something to this slightly amusing recurring circumstance. There were days, depending on who was on my schedule, that I just figured everyone was probably going to be in more pain than usual because the weather had taken a drastic change with huge amounts of precipitation coming in. I researched it and found that it actually has some scientific theories to back it up. From what I have read, the consensus is that this occurs based on something called barometric pressure changes: The pressure in the air that changes based on temperature, humidity and precipitation. The body has nerves that can detect pressure changes, which can make an area feel more sensation (often interpreted as increased pain) when big storms come into the area. There are also some theories that drops in barometric pressure also can cause inflamed areas to swell, scar tissue to contract and joints affected by these things to have an increase in pain and stiffness accordingly. While there is mixed research on these subjects, in my experience with clients and with my own body, I think there just may be some reality to this. For me, I woke up feeling a bit more stiff and sore (not like- “Ouch! What did I do?”, but more like, “this doesn’t feel quite as good as it did yesterday, but I will still get my workout in”). Then I saw it, the snow pelting down outside and I remembered how many people I had told before that there seems to be a correlation with the weather and a slight increase in discomfort in an injured or post surgical area. Whether or not science completely backs this up, I think it is totally worth believing. People with chronic or post operative conditions are often very sensitive to subtle changes in their injured area (trust me, I know!). If you can justify the change to be in correlation with the weather and barometric pressure, it can set a person’s mind at ease so they can continue to work on things to make it better, rather than going into a panic mode. It might be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think panic mode ever helped anyone heal from an injury. Personally, I noticed it, I went about my day, and the next day, it seemed back to a less achy state. 
  2. The other major thing I noticed when working with post operative clients was this: About six weeks or so after the operation, my patients would start to feel frustrated that they weren’t making “enough” progress. The rapid gains that happen over the first few weeks typically start to slow down at this point and people begin to wonder if this is the best they are going to feel and it terrifies them. This is a bit how I was feeling last week. I told myself, as I would any patient I was working with that I had made progress. I even took some new measurements and found I really have made great progress in range of motion and function in the past 2 weeks. I noticed the little things like how much easier it felt to walk up and down the hill to the mailbox, being able to sleep with my toes resting down, etc. I know there is still a lot of work still to do, but I also need to be patient with my body and allow it to heal and rebuild as it should. It is a normal thing to have days that feel frustratingly slow in recovery, or even as if you are sliding backward. The important thing is to make sure you are still working on the right rehabilitation exercises and then just hang in there. There are a lot of factors that change with recovery and it is not a linear road to the top. 

Some of the exercises that I added this week:

  1. Treadmill walking- medium walking pace, 20 minutes. It felt terrible the first time, but has felt better each time since.
  2. Heel walks and toe walks- these are exactly what they sound like. I take 20 steps on my heels, keeping my toes elevated, then 20 steps on my toes, keeping my heels elevated.
  3. Single leg touch downs- I started this by alternating legs each time, but I am working on  being able to do more in a row. Standing on one leg with knee bent slightly, reach hands down toward foot that is on the ground. Make sure belly button is pulled to spine and the back stays flat rather than rounding. Reach until you feel a pull in the hamstring, then slowly return to standing. Goal is to get to 15 on each side.

Have a great week! As always, feel free to reach out if you have any comments or questions!

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