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Do creaky knees and aching hands really signal the arrival of bad weather? Let's look at the science behind this long-held belief with chiropractor Andrew Bang. (Spoiler alert: Dr. Bang can look at the forecast and know if he'll be extra busy.)

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Can Your Joints Predict the Weather?

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hey there, and welcome to another Health Essentials Podcast. I'm John Horton, your host and medical myth explorer. Today, we're going to learn if there's any truth to the belief that aching joints can forecast the weather better than any TV meteorologist. Chiropractor Dr. Andrew Bang is joining us to talk about whether extra creaky knees really serve as a sign of coming rain. Dr. Bang is one of many experts at Cleveland Clinic who pop into our weekly podcast to offer bits of medical wisdom that you can trust. So, were your grandparents onto something when they predicted bad weather because their arthritis flared up? Let's find out. Dr. Bang, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah, of course, John. It's good to hang out with you again.

John Horton: It's always great talking with you. And we've talked a lot over the years on a lot of topics. And one thing that always stands out to me is how you talk about your focus on educating patients so they don't need to come back to see you. I got to tell you, that seems like a bold business plan.

Dr. Andrew Bang: I don't know about that, I mean, the good thing is, is everyone's going to keep hurting themselves. I guess you say good thing, but no, I mean, when it comes down to it, that's my real goal. I mean, a physician really is supposed to be teacher, right? That's that word at the origin of that word. So, if I can teach you how to help yourself. I mean, if you think about it, that's the better business plan. Because now, you'll send me your friends, your sister, your mother-in-law. Well, if you like your mother-in-law. I mean, you'll refer everyone to see me in my office if I can reach you and help you take care of yourself.

So instead of hurting yourself, and be like, Oh, what do I need to do? Go call Dr. Bang. Oh, let me see. What stretch did he teach me? You do that and you're better. I mean, that's the true relationship, right? That's what we want. Now I think I really do feel like, sorry if I got to drink the Kool-aid here for a second, but the Cleveland Clinic's patients-first model, really, that was huge for me. I always felt that way. And I felt like this organization did that and they really promote that. And so, whenever I say, "Hey, I want to do this because I think it'll help patients," I get 110 percent from my higher up saying, "Yeah, do that." So yeah, education is critical.

John Horton: Dr. Bang, it's always a good idea if you get everybody fixed up. And as long as we're on the topic of learning, let's get to today's topic. So, can your joints really predict the weather?

Dr. Andrew Bang: The age-old question. Well, I'll tell you this, there's a lot of different studies out there. I didn't get a chance to read all of them because there's so many. But I reviewed some. Because, listen, I see it all the time in my office. People come in and they're like, "I'm feeling it today. I'm really feeling it today." And we just had a big shift in snow or cold. And so, the studies, they paint different pictures for us. So, for instance, one study of patients who had rheumatoid arthritis, which is a condition that is biological in nature, doesn't happen to everybody, but those who have it, they get joint pains bilaterally on both knees at the same time, or both elbows, for instance, as an example.

They started feeling pain, or these scientists noticed that they felt pain in fall, winter and summer, and spring was their best month, or season, per se. And that they would feel pain on extremes. So, in the winter, the colder it got, then, they felt the pain in their symptoms greater. And in the summer, the hotter it got, they had that inverse relationship to winter. They still had pain unfortunately in the summer. And there's also the theory of barometric pressure changes. Maybe John, you've heard of this, or maybe felt it yourself, too.

John Horton: Well, and that's just, there's pressure with that?

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah. Well, usually, it's when there's a decrease in the overall pressure. Because some of these theories we're still trying to work out. OK, when it's cold, why do you hurt more? And they're like, well maybe it's that you get more sensitized to pain when it's super cold or super-hot, or that the blood flow is decreased. And so that decreased blood flow in the tissues, because your hands are cold or legs are cold, that causes the additional pain that you feel. Or maybe the decrease in blood flow leads to muscle spasms, which causes your pain.

So, the mechanism's still a little murky. And the pressure theory mechanism is that as the decrease in pressure happens, our tissues, like muscles, ligaments, soft tissue, connective tissue, they expand. And so, if you have arthritis already, like osteoarthritis, that's wear and tear naturally, either naturally or by an acute injury, the space is already reduced in your joint, and now the pressure change expands those tissues. So now they're butting up against the arthritis. So maybe that's why people hurt more when the barometric pressure changes. But I see it in my office anecdotally all the time.

John Horton: It's amazing to think that that's going on. And you think you're imagining things, but so there really is a truth to it.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Well yeah, so there's a truth to it. I mean it doesn't happen to every patient. And maybe that's because of the severity of the arthritis or maybe there's some other conditions of why some patients feel it and others don't that we just quite haven't figured out scientifically yet. But yeah, I have patients who will literally, I seen one just yesterday, she loves going to visit her daughter in Arizona because she goes, "I know my pain will be decreased." But she also says to me that she hates going in the heat of the summer. And so, kind of follow that study I mentioned earlier how extreme heat temperatures and extreme cold temperatures tend to seem to aggravate people.

John Horton: Yeah. Now you mentioned how it affects those who have arthritis, for those of us who don't, but we still get those aches and pains, is that a sign that you have some maybe early stages of arthritis that just they're kind of waiting to pop up, or it is just will it affect everybody?

Dr. Andrew Bang: I don't know if that study itself has ever been done. If it has, I didn't see it. I suppose it could be an early warning sign, have got some arthritis going on. Or maybe it's back to the theory of decrease in blood flow. Or maybe the thought is when it's cold outside, I don't know about you, John, but I'm not aching to go outside for a nice walk, and so maybe that when it's colder outside, we're just more inactive. And so that inactivity breeds pain as well.

For an example, OK, so when I first started practicing, I thought my clientele was going to be construction workers, manual laborers, people who worked in factories. And you'd be surprised at the bulk of my patients are those of us who are doing what we're doing right now, sitting on our fannies working. And COVID was just a testament to that. The more people sat. Now, they weren't even getting up, driving in their car, parking, walking to the office, walking around the office. Now they're just walking from their bedroom to their kitchen table. And I saw a spike in increase in pain. And that's due to inactivity.

John Horton: Wow. That's that whole thing where motion is lotion, right? I think you've told me that before.

Dr. Andrew Bang: My gosh, you stole my one liner! I love that one. I can't really take credit for that. A patient taught me that, I wish, it was a female, but I cannot remember who it was to give her some credit. I probably can't actually say her name if I remembered it for HIPAA. But the point is, she taught me that invaluable lesson, that motion is lotion. And I should make a t-shirt out of it because I am always saying that, “motion is lotion.” Because it really is. It does some real physiological changes, right?

So, this is right on par with what we're talking about. So, the pressure changes, there's also some viscous fluid. Viscous meaning oily fluid in between our joints. And that oily fluid, theoretically, when it's cold or the pressure changes, gets sludgy, or maybe there's not enough fluid in there when the pressure happens and the joint expands.

So that fluid, the way more it's created in those joints is through motion. So, when I move a joint, that hyaluronic acid starts to move and then the body goes, Oh, we got to produce more to keep its right volume in there. So, when I sit too long, that fluid's not moving around, it's not being produced, my joint's going to hurt. But as I move, more fluid gets in there, it lubricates the whole joint. That's awesome.

And then the second part of that is the muscle and tissue around a joint itself. So, if this is my little joint here, there's all the connective tissue around this joint. And it, over time, from just sitting still tightens. And that's normal. That's good. It's called ligament creep. If it wasn't, we'd all be like Gumby dolls or Stretch Armstrong, just creep in a puddle of goo on the ground. But the muscles as they tighten, that can lead to increased loss of that joint space in an arthritic joint, thus giving you pain. So, as I move the joint, I'm not only getting that fluid moving, but I'm stretching those ligaments and tendons back out. I'm causing blood flow to come to the area. And so truly, motion is lotion. It's not just a fun saying, it really does affect our life.

John Horton: OK. Well sorry to steal your line, but this just goes to the fact that you are a teacher because that is something that has stuck with me ever since you told it to me. So, it works. In using a lot what you just said then, so it sounds like if you have one of those days where the weather turns, whatever, if you get out and you start moving a little bit, you might feel a little bit better?

Dr. Andrew Bang: 100 percent. There's a bunch of strategies. I mean we can talk about just off the cuff what you could do. So, let's say it's just cold weather in general. When you hit the office, something that you could do. How handy is this? I have my scarf. Because you wouldn't believe the number of people who come to me, let's say it's the middle of summer, and they're like, "My neck is killing me." And we start going through, "What'd you do?" And they're like, "I have no idea. Maybe I slept funny." Da, da, da. And then come to realize that where they sit is right above a vent.

And when they start blasting the AC, that constant coldness on their neck, stiffens up their muscles, sensitizes them to pain, et cetera. So, whether it's the middle of summer and your work is blasting the AC and your desk happens to be underneath that, or it's the dead of winter here in Cleveland where it's freezing right now, a scarf is awesome. Keeps you really insulated in the neck area, keep that neck loose. Gloves are always recommended. You can really layer up and get nice and warm. And then you got motion. Movement to the whole body, you're going to increase your just temperature inside, get the blood churning. So, you could be doing some desk calisthenics.

John Horton: Yeah. Walk us through a few of those. What sort of things can you do at your desk? Because a lot of us are just sitting here all day. What are some simple maneuvers we can do?

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah. So, let's say, because part of it's you don't want to look dumb amongst your coworkers. The other part is you maybe don't have the luxury of a lot of space to jump up and do some jumping jacks, which would be great.

John Horton: That would draw some attention.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah, it might. Well, you can do a simple walking meeting. Instead of sit and do your Teams meeting while you're here, maybe jump on your cellphone, walk during your Teams meeting. So, you're still a part, you're still listening, you're still engaged, you're moving the whole time. If you have a standing desk, that's a great time to stand during a meeting. You could do isometrics. I love isometrics because they're simple and they're really effective. So, an isometric just means same length of a muscle. So, for example, let's say my shoulders and my back are really tight. I could literally just push my hands together really hard and hold this for a period of time. And that engagement, yeah, try it. So just push in and hold.

John Horton: OK. Yeah, you can feel that.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Oh yeah, of course. Yeah. You're contracting the chest, the shoulders, the back. And that's going to force blood into the extremities. It's going to elevate your heart rate, which is good because you've been sitting. You can do that same thing with your knees. You literally could squeeze your knees together under your desk. And as you're holding, your inner thighs start to burn, your buttocks might start to burn. And that's good. That means you're getting the blood flow through there. You're waking up some muscles that have been essentially stagnant. OK. You could do.

John Horton: It's hard to believe those little movements do that much for you.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Oh yeah. I mean it does. But that's the way it is. And it's all about repetition. If I go to the gym one day a week, it's going to do nothing for me. I mean, you'll be really sore until the next week you go. But the people who are really successful in the gym are those who go smaller amounts of time throughout the week. You have better results. So, this is the same thing. Doing a 30-second to 60-second isometric once is not going to do much. Let's say you start doing that every single day. You're going to create a pattern in your muscles, in your heart, and you're going to get real benefit.

John Horton: So how often can you do it? Should you do it every hour, every two hours, when you're sitting at your desk just to move something?

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah, I mean I find that the body, it craves a couple of things. It craves movement. It craves a variety of movement. Repetitive movements tend to lead to pain and irritation. Where a variety of movements, you tend to have relief in pain and increase in blood flow, et cetera. So yeah, I mean doing it every hour, doing every two hours. You're not doing it hard enough to really cause any injury. If you were saying, hey, go do a 50-pound weight dumbbell press, yeah, you wouldn't want to do that every hour. But if I'm simply doing some isometrics here, or in my midback, I'm squeezing my shoulder blades together and holding for 30 to 60 seconds. I'm squeezing my knees, I'm squeezing my glutes, kind of every kind of quadrant of the body, you're going to do great.

John Horton: And before we leave, kind of things you can do, I know one of the big issues people talk about with weather changes and pain involves your hands. So, what are some simple exercises you can do? What tips do you have?

Dr. Andrew Bang: OK. So, you could do those isometrics. If you have a stress ball, squeezing those hands because that's going to force, again, blood flow into the hands. If you really want to get into it, there's this stuff called paraffin wax. It's literally hot wax that you dip your hands in. Coats the hands, helps the heat penetrate deep into the joints. So, if you really are suffering from a lot of pain, that's a very inexpensive therapy that you could do safely at home, at your desk, literally. Because the wax then, after it cools down, you peel it off, put it back in the paraffin dip, it heats back up. You could do those multiple times. Those little finger cut gloves so you can still use your dexterity, those work amazingly for a lot of people. But again, that motion is lotion. If we move our hands, squeeze those balls, that's enough a lot of times to help people feel better.

John Horton: And you've mentioned heat a few times here. I take it that's also something where if you're having these achy joints because of the weather, if you put a heating pad on it, or we've always been partial to rice socks, things like that.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah. Sure.

John Horton: Does that work really well?

Dr. Andrew Bang: It does seem to. OK, and again, the mechanism behind that is that increase in blood flow, that increase in muscle relaxation. Because those muscles, as they tighten, they're pulling now in those joints. So, if we can get the heat to help penetrate those areas where you have pain, you have increased blood flow, those ligaments, tendons, connective tissue loosens up, back to a lengthened state instead of a tightened state. So, you tend to have less pressure on a joint, so then you tend to feel better. So yeah, figure out how to do those microwave rice bags, or corn bags, or the gloves. There's a lot of real simple things that you could do to really get some benefit to your life instead of just dealing with the, Oh, my hands always ache or my knee or whatever.

John Horton: So, keep these things handy for when it's rainy or snowy or a cold front's coming in, or anything like that.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Exactly. I mean, it's not hard to make some of these parts of your daily routine. To leave a little rice sock at your office so that you can throw it in the microwave. Because usually those are how those are heated. You throw them in the microwave for one to two minutes, take it back to your desk. And to be honest, that's a dual. You're walking to the microwave. The whole time, you could be stretching, moving the wrist, elbow, shoulder, whatever's hurting in the extremity. Throw the rice bag in. When you get back to your desk to work, you're putting the rice bag on your hands. Warming those hands up. Yeah, there's a lot of real simple things.

John Horton: Well, those are great tips, Dr. Bang. They're kind of like rays of sunshine on the rainy days that we're talking about. So, before we come to a close, do you have anything else you'd like to add?

Dr. Andrew Bang: So, the three things you really can do every single day is heat it up, tighten it up, or loosen it up. And the heat, as we've been really gnashing at it. Heating, some kind of heating pillow pad, gloves, scarf. You want to stretch it if it's too tight because that will bring the blood flow to the area. And those muscles that get overstretched, we want to tighten those. That's where those isometrics come in handy. So, when our buttocks, we get overstretched because it's just sitting there all day, or our midback, that's a muscle that tends to get overstretched because we're down at our computer. We want to tighten those ones, squeeze those ones. And the ones that are too overtight, like our side or our neck usually gets really tight, we want to stretch those ones and bring that blood flow back into those areas. So, heat it up, tighten it up, or loosen it up.

John Horton: Perfect way to end it. Dr. Bang, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Andrew Bang: Yeah, thanks for having me, John.

John Horton: So, there you have it. Your joints might not be as accurate as the Weather Channel, but extra aches can signal big changes in outdoor conditions, and whether you should grab a coat before leaving the house. Til next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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