How It Affects MS | Barometric Pressure vs. Weather | Why It Affects MS | Other Affected Conditions | How Weather Affects MS | Why Temperature Changes Affect MS | How Seasons Affect MS | Management | Support
As one MyMSTeam member said, “Yesterday, my MS seemed to show its ugly head more. We had a storm system coming in, and it snowed all day yesterday until about 6 p.m. I woke up feeling a ton better today — and the sun is shining and beautiful out. Does anyone else notice things start acting up when the barometric pressure changes? Just like horses in a field, I can tell when a system is coming in by my symptoms acting up.”
One member responded, “Barometric pressure changes often bring on migraines for me.” Another said, “I thought I was the only one!”
Some people may dismiss these accounts, but there’s more to it than just hearsay. There is scientific evidence that may help explain why many people’s MS symptoms seem to be affected by the weather and related barometric pressure changes.
Many people have flare-ups, extreme fatigue, or migraines when a storm or a cold front comes in. The root cause of these effects on MS symptoms may be barometric pressure changes.
Barometric pressure is another term for air pressure, which refers to the force that the atmosphere’s weight exerts on objects, including the body. Air pressure is measured with a barometer.
Weather refers to the different events that occur in the atmosphere — rain, snow, wind, tornadoes, and clear skies.
Barometric pressure changes are a major factor that dictates the weather. High air pressure systems tend to cause air to flow down to the ground. As the air gets closer to the surface of the earth, it tends to spread out and prevents clouds from forming. In contrast, low pressure causes the air to flow together and rise. The air cools as it rises, causing the water vapor in the air to condense into water droplets that form clouds, and that may fall to the ground as precipitation.
Although scientists are still debating how barometric pressure affects MS symptoms, one idea relates to changes in the brain. Evidence suggests that barometric changes can temporarily cause brain areas to change in size. Volume changes in certain brain areas may affect their function and trigger symptoms.
It is thought that the changes in air pressure affect the way blood vessels in the brain contract and dilate. These transformations may cause changes in blood pressure within the brain, which can make areas of the brain swell, potentially affecting the brain’s functioning. However, more evidence is needed to make a firm conclusion.
Migraines brought on by barometric pressure changes may also result from pressure changes within the sinuses. The sinuses are air-filled cavities that normally equalize their internal pressure with external barometric pressure. In cases of congestion, however, the sinuses can’t adjust, and this pressure differential is thought to trigger migraines. This theory may explain why people with these kinds of headaches may find relief from decongestants.
Barometric pressure also affects several other disorders. For example, low barometric pressure is associated with increased pain in people living with fibromyalgia. Low pressure is also associated with increased symptoms in those living with other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Many MS symptoms can be triggered or exacerbated (made worse) by weather changes. The relationship between storms, rain, and MS symptoms is complex. Still, these weather patterns are indirectly associated with MS symptoms.
When examining weather factors affecting MS, temperature changes are the most prominent. Hot and cold weather are both associated with triggering or intensifying different sets of symptoms in people living with MS.
One of the most characteristic features of MS is sensitivity to heat. It is very common for people living with MS to experience worsening symptoms during humid or warm weather, especially double vision.
In the past, doctors would sometimes diagnose people with MS by asking them to take a long, hot bath. If the bath triggered a flare-up or an exacerbation of symptoms, the doctor would strongly consider an MS diagnosis.
Cold weather is also associated with MS. Many people find that cold weather exacerbates their spasticity. In addition, cold temperatures can affect the blood vessels of people living with MS. This symptom, called Raynaud’s disease, reduces blood flow in the feet and toes, causing pain and turning them a bluish purple.
MS is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the myelin surrounding neurons (nerve cells), particularly in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Typically, this myelin insulates neurons and lets signals travel more quickly down the nerves. When the immune system attacks and creates lesions on the nerves, this leaves the nerves more sensitive to changes in temperature. Increased body temperature during hot weather affects the way these nerves fire, temporarily worsening symptoms.
In cold weather, blood vessels near the skin tend to contract to conserve heat. It is thought that the blood vessels of people with MS tend to overreact to the cold and close more tightly than needed.
Seasonal weather patterns such as hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure changes and can trigger symptoms like migraines.
In addition, decreased sunlight during the winter is associated with a decrease in vitamin D. Vitamin D insufficiency is associated with increased rates of symptom relapses, so many people experience more significant symptoms during the winter months. In fact, MS is most common in higher-latitude countries where vitamin D insufficiency is more common.
Seasonal-related vitamin D insufficiency also affects mental health. It is associated with the development of seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that occurs during the winter. Depression can also be a symptom of MS that may seem to worsen with changes in the weather or seasons.
You can’t change the weather, but you can take steps to manage your weather-related symptoms. If the outside temperature is too hot, it is better to stay inside with the air conditioning on if possible. When temperatures are cold, bundle up and keep your fingers and toes warm.
If the weather forecast suggests a low-pressure system is coming, you can plan around your fatigue. If you experience migraines with air pressure changes, decongestants are effective for some people. There are also surgical options to clear the sinuses.
Finally, many people find that vitamin D helps their symptoms, and evidence suggests that vitamin D supplementation may reduce MS relapse rates. Ask your primary care doctor and neurologist before making any changes to your medications and nutritional supplementation. You can also naturally generate vitamin D with sunlight, but make sure not to overheat.
It’s tough to have your symptoms go up and down according to the weather. But you are not alone. Reach out to your loved ones, care teams, support groups, and fellow MyMSTeam members. MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. More than 183,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
Do changes in barometric pressure or weather affect your multiple sclerosis? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.