How Does Barometric Pressure Affect the Body? Doctors Explain

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Ever wondered how barometric pressure affects your body? As it turns out, there are many ways it can impact our health. From headaches to joint pain, here’s what you need to know about the effects of barometric pressure on the human body.

What is the normal barometric pressure?

The air pressure, also known as barometric pressure, is the weight of air pushing down on the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface. The average — or normal — barometric pressure at sea level is considered to be 1,013.25 mb (759.96 mmHg). The highest barometric pressure on record was 1,084 mb (813 mmHg), taken in 1968 in Siberia during clear and extremely cold weather. The lowest known barometric pressure was recorded over the Pacific Ocean during a typhoon in 1979 and measured 870 mb (652 mmHg). But generally, anything over 1,022.68 mb (767 mmHg) is considered high, and air pressure less than 1,013 mb (759.81 mmHg) is low.

The barometric pressure can vary depending on the weather.

For example, the barometric pressure is dropping when a storm is coming and the air is getting colder. On the other hand, rising atmospheric pressure is a sign of clear skies and good weather. Generally, the longer it takes for barometric pressure to change, the longer the upcoming weather pattern will last. So a minor weather event like a passing shower may not cause any change in barometric pressure.

Air pressure also varies with altitude. It’s always lower at high altitudes, regardless of the weather. This happens because as the air rises, it cools down and becomes less dense, so as a result, the air pressure drops.

How does barometric pressure affect the body?

Barometric pressure can affect the human body in a number of ways, some of which can be very subtle. This sometimes makes it difficult to determine just how significant barometric pressure is for your health and well-being.

The symptoms of atmospheric pressure changes can vary from person to person. Many people find that their symptoms are worse when the barometric pressure is dropping, while others are more sensitive to the rising barometric pressure. The air pressure often affects the pressure in our joints and muscles, so people with chronic pain and arthritis may notice their symptoms worsen when the air pressure fluctuates. Some people may also experience headaches, dizziness, or fatigue, while others may have no symptoms at all.

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It’s important to understand how your body responds to changes in air pressure so you can mitigate the effects of the weather on your well-being. Let’s take a look at some of the health issues that are most affected by atmospheric pressure changes.

Migraines and headaches

People who are prone to migraines and headaches often notice that their symptoms are affected by weather changes, with barometric pressure fluctuations being one of the most common weather triggers for headaches. According to one study, even a slight change in air pressure can cause a headache among people with chronic migraines.

But why does it happen? Our heads are full of air pockets known as sinuses. Those pockets of air are usually in balance with the atmospheric pressure. But when the external atmospheric pressure starts to fluctuate, the pressure in your sinuses also changes. And this can trigger a headache.

But there is another possible explanation for pressure-triggered migraines. Low barometric pressure can stimulate the trigeminal nerve and cause an inflammatory response, lower the pain threshold of the sensitive nerves, dilate blood vessels, and create leakage of plasma proteins into them. Additionally, it releases serotonin, which can transmit electrical signals backward to trigeminal cells in the brainstem, resulting in potential vomiting, nausea, or pain.

An infographic on the effects of barometric pressure on the human body

Joint pain

A 2007 study of 200 patients with knee osteoarthritis discovered a link between changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature and the severity of knee pain.

When the barometric pressure is dropping, it affects the resistance of fluids in the joints and causes the soft tissue around your joints to expand. This can set off the pain response of the nerves in your joints and worsen the pain.

Blood pressure

The changes in atmospheric pressure can also affect your blood pressure. A recent study showed a direct relationship between air pressure and blood pressure. This means that when the barometric pressure is dropping, so is your blood pressure, potentially causing fatigue and dizziness.

The same study found that low atmospheric pressure associated with low blood pressure increases the risk of health complications, such as myocardial infarction, stroke, and pulmonary embolisms, especially in hypertensive people over 65.

Why are some people more affected by barometric pressure than others?

Many studies have been conducted to determine the effects of high and low barometric pressure on the body. Researchers discovered that people with chronic pain are more sensitive to changes in barometric pressure (and other weather parameters). For example, according to a 2019 study by the University of Manchester, lower barometric pressure, along with higher relative humidity and wind speed, was associated with increased pain in people with chronic pain.

But these fluctuations don’t have to be sudden to cause pain; gradual changes over time can too. For example, people with arthritis will likely experience increased joint pain as the day goes on because of the dropping atmospheric pressure.

Barometric pressure can also influence some people’s moods and pain perception.

If you’re feeling down on a gray, rainy day, you’re more likely to notice your headache or joint pain getting worse.

Finally, barometric pressure can have different effects on different people depending on what stage of life they are in. For example, pregnant women, young children, and older adults are more likely to be affected by changes in barometric pressure.

Bottom line

It’s fascinating to think about how the air pressure around us affects our bodies. While most of us may not feel any effects of the air pressure, some people are sensitive to even slight changes in barometric pressure.

There are a few things that you can do to help lessen symptoms associated with barometric pressure changes. Try to stay active when the barometric pressure is changing — it can improve your mood and joint mobility. Drink plenty of fluids and take frequent breaks if you are feeling dizzy or fatigued. And if you have any medical conditions that could be affected by changes in barometric pressure, discuss ways to best protect yourself with your doctor.

January 12, 2023