Weather and Arthritis
Does your joint pain tend to increase when the weather turns cold or stormy? You’re not alone. Many people with arthritis claim there’s a connection between the weather and arthritis: They believe they know when the weather is going to change because the pain or stiffness level in their joints worsens. Ask just about any rheumatologist, and they’ll tell you they hear weather-related complaints from many of their patients.
What’s the Research Behind Weather and Arthritis?
Though researchers are not sure exactly why arthritis pain might increase with weather changes, they suspect that certain conditions in the atmosphere, such as a drop in barometric pressure, can increase swelling in the joint capsule leading to pain.
Barometric pressure refers to the weight of the air around us. In good weather, barometric pressure is high. This pressure pushes against the body from the outside, helping to keep tissues – including the tissues that surround our joints – from expanding. In “bad” or stormy weather, barometric pressure drops so that there is less pressure to push against the body. This allows tissues around the joints to expand, putting pressure on the joints and increasing pain.
What the Studies Show
The research on weather’s impact on arthritis is conflicting. One study from Tufts University showed that with every 10 degree drop in temperature, arthritis pain increased in the study participants. It also showed that low barometric pressure, low temperatures and rain can increase pain. Studies in cadavers have showed that barometric pressure can affect pressure in the joints. In one cadaver study, low atmospheric pressure threw the ball of the hip joint off track by more than one-third.
However, other studies have shown that regardless of where people live, their bodies seem to establish a new equilibrium to the climate they live in. One study that looked at chronic pain sufferers in warm and cold areas – San Diego, Nashville, Boston, and Worcester, a Massachusetts city with much colder temperatures than Boston – found that two-thirds believed the weather worsened their pain. However, the perceived effect of weather on pain was not found to be related to the regional climate. Thus, this study did not support the theory that pain is worsened by living in a colder climate. In other words, relocating from, say, Buffalo to Miami will probably not make much difference in the long-term. And there are other studies in which people say there is no difference in their pain due to weather changes.
Tips on Managing Weather-Related Joint Pain
Regardless of what the studies show, your pain is unique to you. If you notice an increase in joint pain or stiffness during certain weather patterns, there are things you can do to find some relief. Your doctor may increase the dosage of your pain medication, but you can also try one of the following:
- Warm up – Applying hot compresses or heating pads to the affected joints can relax muscles and ease joint pain. Keep your entire body warm by dressing in layers, warm up the car on cold days before getting in or try using an electric blanket at night.
- Reduce swelling – If you notice joint swelling, try compression products on the painful areas, such as a compression knee sleeve or spandex gloves.
- Move it! – Exercise can help ease joint pain, particularly if you exercise before you go outside. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about specific exercises that can help you manage joint pain and stiffness during weather changes.
- De-stress and improve mood – Depression and anxiety are common in people with arthritis, so it’s crucial to find ways to improve your mood and manage stress. These can include everything from support groups or psychotherapy to exercise and meditation.
- Get Your Zzzs – Lack of sleep can worsen arthritis pain and your mood, regardless of the weather. If you’re already feeling an increase in pain from the weather, short changing your sleep will make matters even worse.
- Remember that weather cannot actually worsen arthritis – You may feel more pain when it’s cold or stormy out, but these weather conditions cannot cause joint damage or make your disease worse. Further, there is no evidence that living in a particular climate can prevent or cause arthritis.
- It’s Only Temporary – Studies show that people do adjust to their environment. If you move to a place that has a lot of rain, for example, your body will slowly adjust to the barometric pressure. It does this by moving fluid from the joint into the body’s circulation. It also helps to remember that storms do pass.
Everyone with arthritis is different. Some people are not affected by the weather at all while some experience a significant increase in pain. Unfortunately science doesn’t yet have a lot of answers and it’s impossible to predict what type of weather changes will affect which people. If you’ve noticed that your symptoms worsen in specific types of weather, talk to your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.