Ask enough people who live with arthritis if they think the weather has an effect on their symptoms, and you’ll get lots of nodding; some of it quite emphatic.
Anecdotally, doctors who treat people with arthritis, as well as researchers who study factors that affect arthritis symptoms, hear over and over that certain kinds of weather — namely, cold fronts, where there’s a drop in barometric pressure and an increase in humidity — makes peoples’ arthritis pain and swelling worse.
Past studies have found some evidence supporting the link.
A 2014 study published in the journal Pain found that barometric pressure and relative humidity affected symptoms in 222 people with osteoarthritis of the hip. And an oft-cited study in the American Journal of Medicine of 200 people with knee osteoarthritis found that every 10-degree drop in temperature was associated with a slight increase in pain. A 2016 review of 12 studies concluded “the evidence to support the common belief and observation that cold climate worsens arthritic symptoms, is weak, however, some studies and experiments have shown that patients with arthritic symptoms do experience a trend of worsening in pain and stiffness in cold and damp weather.”
However, large-scale evaluations of the impact of weather on arthritis symptoms are few in number. In a recent abstract presented at the 2018 American College of Rheumatology/Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals (ACR/ARHP) Annual Meeting in Chicago, researchers, including those from our nonprofit organization the Global Healthy Living Foundation, looked at data from 1,334 unique patients in our ArthritisPower research registry. (Of various arthritis conditions represented in ArthritisPower, 45 percent of people had rheumatoid arthritis, 10 percent psoriatic arthritis, 9 percent ankylosing spondylitis, and 62 percent osteoarthritis.)
Researchers compared a patient’s self-reported disease activity (including pain interference, fatigue, and physical function) with various weather parameters (including temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure) from the nearest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather station based on their geolocation.
What they found so far: There was a statistically significant correlation between weather patterns and peoples’ self-reported symptoms, but it wasn’t a very strong one. In other words, there is some connection between cold fronts and arthritis symptoms, but the extent of the connection is minor based on what was seen in these data.
“Part of the challenge with this topic is that it is really complicated,” says the study’s lead author rheumatologist Jeff Curtis, MD, Harbert-Ball Endowed Professor of Medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham. “Is it temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, rain, some confluence of several of these, or changes in one or more of these that drives arthritis symptoms?” The study authors plan to collect more data from participants over time to see if different or stronger patterns about arthritis symptoms and weather emerge.
It may be that other factors have a bigger day-to-day impact on arthritis symptoms than weather, or that crummy weather also happens to be linked with other factors like general fatigue and mood changes that affect arthritis symptoms.
“Many people with arthritis ‘predict the weather’ when they begin to feel more aches and pains, or additional symptoms,” says study coauthor W. Benjamin Nowell, PhD, director of Patient-Centered Research at GHLF. “This study suggests their perception may be accurate, though more research is needed to understand which weather factors could be driving symptoms and how the relationship between them works.”
Get Involved in Arthritis Research
If you are diagnosed with RA or another musculoskeletal health condition, we encourage you to participate in future studies by joining CreakyJoints’ patient research registry, ArthritisPower. ArthritisPower is the first ever patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions.