The perceived link between illness and the weather dates back to 400BC when it was noted by Hippocrates. Since that time, there have been conflicting opinions on the matter, and there is still no universal agreement as to whether the weather has an effect on conditions such as arthritis.
Medical conditions that have been reported as being sensitive to changes in the weather include: rheumatoid arthritis; osteoarthritis; low back pain; gout; fibromyalgia; phantom limb pain; scar pain; headaches; trigeminal neuralgia; and pain influenced by mood disorder.
However, most investigations examining the relationship between weather and pain have studied people with arthritis. The joints most commonly believed to be affected are the knees, shoulders, hips and fingers.
While some studies have found a link between arthritis pain and the weather, others have not. It is very difficult to be sure you have definitely found a cause and effect relationship in such studies for several reasons.
- There are many different types of arthritis.
- Studies have tended to focus on pain reported by patients rather than on blood test results or examinations by doctors. So information has often been subjective rather than directly measurable.
- A great variety of meteorological variables could be involved — such as temperature, barometric pressure, rainfall, humidity, thunderstorm activity, sunshine, and the level of ionisation of the air.
Some researchers are not convinced of a link between weather and pain, and think that people tend to look for patterns where none exist. For example, a person might have an experience when intense pain was coincidentally accompanied by bad weather, and this may be enough for them to believe the two are always linked.
Reasons why arthritis symptoms could be affected by the weather
Several factors have been put forward to explain a possible link between the weather and arthritis symptoms.
Changes in temperature may have an impact on body tissues. Tendons, muscles, bones and scar tissue all have different densities, and cold and damp may expand or contract them in different ways. Warmth, such as a hot bath, can often help to ease the pain.
Changes in barometric pressure may increase stiffness in the joints and trigger subtle movements that heighten pain response in already sensitised joints. Alternatively, the change in barometric pressure may temporarily unbalance body pressure and sensitise nerve endings. In rheumatoid arthritis, joints are inflamed and under pressure because of increased joint fluid. If the barometric pressure drops, tissues can become more inflamed, causing more pain.
Seasonal weather patterns may influence mood in some people, indirectly affecting their pain perception.
As arthritis occurs in all sorts of climates all over the world, it seems unlikely that living in a cold, damp environment predisposes a person to get arthritis. Nevertheless, it does appear that certain people are weather-sensitive and say they suffer from more intense pain and greater difficulty performing tasks in particular weather conditions.
However, moving to a warmer climate is not always the answer to improve arthritis as the body is said to establish an equilibrium with the local climate, so that relative changes in weather may trigger an increase in pain regardless of the actual weather. Also, there are so many factors involved in arthritis that moving house is not likely to solve the problem.
The scientific evidence for the effect of weather changes on arthritis pain is still ambiguous, but the high number of people who report a link may point towards a relationship. However, no matter how good or bad the weather might be, it will still not change the long-term outlook for people with arthritis.