Does Weather Affect Your Arthritis Pain?

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One common question patients often ask themselves is if cold weather actually makes their arthritic joints ache?  Is there any scientific merit behind what many either consider just a wives’ tale or simply common sense?

According to various research studies, I’m not alone.  Studies suggest that people who have arthritis often assert that weather conditions do have an impact on the severity of their arthritic pain (Laborde et al, 1986).

Despite our strongly held convictions with respect to the question as to whether or not weather impacts the severity of joint  or arthritis pain, let’s look at some research that tests this hypothesis. In a recent article published in the American Journal of Medicine (McAlindon et al, 2007), the researchers studied 200 geographically isolated individuals with osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis) of the knee-joint.

Not surprisingly, their study results confirmed that both cold weather as well as increases in atmospheric pressure are both associated with an increase in joint pain severity.  What’s more is that these researchers were also able to use these findings to offer a plausible explanation as to why cold weather and increases in barometric pressure have an impact on arthritis pain severity.

Why Does Cold Weather Worsen Arthritic Pain?

To answer this question, the researchers viewed the knee-joint from an engineering perspective.  As such, they hypothesized that cold temperatures, for example, could have a direct effect on the viscosity of synovial fluid or indirect effects on inflammatory mediators. Basically, this means that cold temperatures could increase the viscosity or thickness of your joint fluid in much the same way that cold temperatures would affect the oil that you use to lubricate your car’s engine.

How Do Changes in Atmospheric Pressure Affect Arthritis Pain?

Atmospheric pressure can be measured with a device known as a barometer.  Changes in barometric pressure over the short-term can be used to predict changes in weather patterns.  Meteorologists, scientists who study weather, know that a drop in barometric or atmospheric pressure often precedes storms.   People who suffer from arthritis pain also often claim that they can tell when a storm is brewing…

In terms of how barometric pressure affects your arthritis pain, they had some ideas in this regard as well. They cited cadaver studies which show that the intraarticular pressure (pressure inside of your joint) is actually much lower than atmospheric pressure.  One often used analogy is to think of a balloon inside of a barometric device.  Much like when the pressure outside of the balloon drops, the balloon will expand in the same regard as the tissue inside of joints.  This expansion or swelling of joint tissue can cause nerve irritation resulting in a worsening of pain.

Consequently, decreases in barometric pressure may actually affect your joint biomechanics. Now that we’ve established the association between cold weather, decreases in barometric pressure, and joint pain, where does that leave us? If you are one of the millions of Canadians or Americans who suffer from Arthritis, now that winter is upon us, there are two simple options for minimizing the impact of weather on your arthritis pain.

More Research

Despite the aforementioned research studies, intuitive logic, as well as patient’s own experiences with arthritis pain, the association between atmospheric conditions and arthritis pain remains fairly controversial in the scientific literature (Figueiredo EC et al, 2011).

However, regardless of  the challenges involved with research methodology for studying this association as well as the ongoing controversy, researchers from Brazil published a review article summarizing the current available evidence (Figueiredo EC et al, 2011).

From their review of the literature, they noted associations between cold weather, low atmospheric pressure, and high humidity exacerbating pain and stiffness in patients with osteoarthritis. Further, they cited research suggesting that urban as opposed to rural settings were propitious for those with arthritis.

In contrast, they noted that for those with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, high atmospheric pressure actually worsened pain symptoms.

Snowbirds in Arizona with Arthritis Pain

The simplest solution, particularly if you live in very cold and humid climate, is to minimize your exposure to the outdoors–as much as possible. At the very least, be cognizant of how your exposure to the cold affects your joint pain. Secondly, if possible, this association between cold weather and joint pain  gives you one more excuse to head south and take a warm vacation particularly to a warm and dry climate like Arizona.

References:

  1. McAlindon T, Formica M, Schmid CH, Fletcher J. Changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature influence osteoarthritis pain. Am J Med. 2007 May;120(5):429-34.Laborde JM,
  2. Dando WA, Powers MJ. Influence of weather on osteoarthritis. Soc Sci Med. 1986; 23(6):549-554.
  3. Figueiredo EC, Figueiredo GC, Dantas RT.  Influence of meteorological elements on osteoarthritis pain: a review of the literature.  Rev Bras Reumatol. 2011 Dec;51(6):622-628.
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12 thoughts on “Does Weather Affect Your Arthritis Pain?

  1. Thanks for this great article! I’ve often wondered if there was a connection between arthritis and the weather. For myself, I have noticed that my joint pain seems to get worse not only when the weather gets colder, but also when it rains or is cloudy outside.

  2. Hi I have been told i have bones of a 70 year old even though i am 50 due to osteoporosis . Having a collapsed spine and major pain i have morphine patches combined with other drugs they do the trick for the moment. I cannot tell you what the pain is like when it rains as soon as i open my eyes in the morning i can tell you if it is raining. I grit my teeth and carry on . Why. because its no good moaning about it you just gotta carry on even though there are days and they are many of them i think tomyself why have i been dealt with this i have done no one any harm. but hey i just get on with it.
    Thanks for listening. Lyn

  3. Interesting, and I completely agree. Whenever the weather changes, I feel my body change. I found some other good arthritis info on BetterMedicine, too..

  4. I really agree that if the weather is really cold you may experience this kind of pain..Because I experience this before..

  5. My uncle used to suffer from arthritis and it used to get much worse during winter. At our home, we always suspected a connection. We knew empirically that winter had an effect on arthritis. Your tips about dealing with weather is exactly how he responded. Thanks for the info.

  6. My mother is another one of those “human barometers” too, unfortunately. Through the years of pain when the weather changes, she has found that keeping her joints wrapped and well clothed helps, also when the pain becomes too much, she uses ice pack compresses for the affected joints. And of course, apart from her medicine, she drinks loads of water and tea during the winter, plus a healthy diet of fish, veggies and fruits. She claims these tips help her, so I hope they can help others too!
    Rita

  7. Arthritis isn’t the only sickness / handicap that transforms a person into a human barometer, or at least that’s my experience.
    I got rear-ended in 07, which gave me a chronic whiplash injury, a busted shoulder, hip and arm. And I can guarantee you any changes in the weather makes my life a living hell.

    When the weather changes I use the sauna, tanning salon(I know that’s it not healthy but the warmed helps on the pains.), this makes it more bearable for me that is. ;)

  8. Nice read, I am pretty sure that weather does have a significant effect on arthritis, but who am I. What I usually do is to prepare ginger tea or ginseng tea to heat up my body to prepare for the cold weather. A hot cup of soup is also nice.

  9. Is my arthritis less painful in the hot (warm) weather? For me the difference is like night and day. In my home in Reno, Nv. Ahhh so painful, once I get to my home in Laughlin, Nv., what a relief. try it you’ll like it.

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