Two months ago, I strained my neck. It’s better, but I now notice that every time it gets cold, I feel tingling all down my arm. I started joking that I had become one of those people who could “tell when it’s about to rain” because my joints hurt. Then I wondered: how does changing weather affect our health?
Turns out, it’s not just that we’re more likely to get sick when the weather turns cold. Lots of health issues are associated with the changing of the seasons.
First, there may be some truth to the old wives’ tale that old injuries can “tell” when it’s about to rain. As far back as 400 BC, people were complaining that the changing weather made their joints hurt, according to a paper on the relationship between weather and pain.
There’s plenty of stories, but that doesn’t mean there’s plenty of evidence. So far, we’re still not sure exactly why aches and pains happen when the rain comes down, but it’s probably because cold weather makes atmospheric pressure drop. Atmospheric pressure is always there, but when there’s suddenly a little less of it, the gas inside our body instead can expand. This includes the gas in the fluid around the joints, which could suddenly put more pressure on old injuries that didn’t heal 100 percent properly. Low pressure can cause headaches, too.
And of course, there’s a connection between weather and mood. Seasonal affective disorder — a form of low-grade depression that usually happens when it’s dark and cold — is common, but suicides are actually more likely to happen in the spring and early summer. There are a couple of theories as to why. One: the sudden warmth of spring and summer can create mania, which increases risk for suicide. Spring can also make inflammation problems worse, and there’s a known correlation between suicide and inflammation. And one mostly psychological reason is called the “broken promises” theory: you expect to feel bad in the winter and better when the spring comes. When spring comes and you still feel bad, you become even more hopeless because everyone is supposed to feel cheerful in warm weather. (Though don’t forget that some people get “summer depression,” too.)
Cold weather is also linked to increased risk for heart attack, according to a study in the BMJ. The most likely reason is that many people don’t exercise much in the winter; few of us are at peak shape in December. But after a snowstorm, we have to get out there and vigorously shovel the snow from the sidewalk, which can hurt the heart. This is why you always hear reports of people dying while shoveling snow after major storms.
For those with diabetes, hot weather can create complications. According to a Nature study, more people are hospitalized for diabetes-related problems in hot weather. People with diabetes have trouble managing their blood-sugar levels. Problems with blood-sugar levels can make it harder to sweat, and make people urinate more; this makes a diabetic more likely to overheat or get dehydrated.
So let this be a warning to us all. It’s tempting to believe we’re invincible and can just power through the snow or the heat, but we are probably more at the mercy of atmospheric pressure and temperature hikes and drops than we think.