Whether Weather Affects Arthritis
Doctors who specialize in the treatment of patients with arthritis (myself included) generally agree that many patients experience a worsening of joint symptoms with changes in the weather. Moreover, folklore holds that the weather can affect arthritis as emphasized by sayings like "feeling under the weather." We know, for example, that weather clearly influences many health conditions. Examples of this relationship include pollens in the air and asthma or sinus infection, sun rays and skin burning or skin cancer, cold weather and heart attacks, and gloomy, dark weather and depression. We also know that heat packs or hot showers can relax the muscles around the joints and relieve stiffness and pain for some. Conversely, ice packs can ease the inflammation in the joints themselves.
But does the weather actually affect arthritis? If so, how?
First, there hasn't been much real research science addressing this question. In 1961, famous arthritis specialist J. Hollander, MD, conducted a study in which he built a climate chamber and demonstrated that high humidity combined with low barometric pressure were associated with increased joint pain and stiffness. Neither weather factor by itself seemed to influence joint symptoms. The study has been criticized because of the limited number of patients evaluated (12 patients). The theory of the study is that inflamed joints swell as the barometric pressure drops. This swelling irritates the nerves around the joints that sense pain and causes more stiffness.
Well, if this theory proved correct (and it is not universally accepted), should a person with arthritis move to a region with a dry climate?
The answer is no. Relocating to a different climatic environment does not seem to make a difference in the long run. Scientific studies have shown that no matter where people live their bodies seem to establish a new equilibrium to the local climate. As a result, changes in the weather affect the arthritis symptoms in the same manner regardless of the actual overall average weather. Moving is not likely to be beneficial long term. (To emphasize a point, I can tell you that there are plenty of busy rheumatologists in Arizona!)
What is the bottom line?
It appears that there is some evidence that the symptoms of certain people with arthritis are influenced by changes in the weather. This is not true for all people with arthritis, nor is it predictable what type of weather alterations will bother people. For example, in one room I may have a patient complaining that last week, just before it rained, her joints began aching and now that the weather is warm and clear she feels better. Simultaneously, in the next room, a patient tells me that her joints are far worse today after it rained last week! What do I do with this information? Well, each patient must be evaluated (and evaluate themselves) uniquely. The bottom line is that while the exact cause(s) of the activation of arthritis symptoms may not yet be scientifically understood, each patient must make lifestyle and/or medication adjustments according to the particular weather conditions that they note influence their symptoms.
If a patient does experience joint pain and stiffness with weather changes, how harmful is this?
It is very important to appreciate that only joint symptoms (such as pain and stiffness) are influenced by weather. We do not have any evidence that weather changes lead to joint damage. Furthermore, weather changes have not been related to whether or not an individual develops arthritis.
Special rheumatic conditions
There are special rheumatic conditions that may be associated with arthritis and are clearly influenced by weather. In fact, as a rheumatologist, it is my job to inform patients with these conditions that they should do their best to avoid aggravating these conditions by limiting their exposure to certain weather situations. Here are some of these special conditions.