DEAR DOCTOR K:
I swear my arthritis pain gets worse on cold, wet days. My husband is skeptical. Is it possible that the weather could affect my symptoms?
I hear from my patients all the time that the weather affects their arthritis symptoms. But is it true? If so, how does that work? And is there any scientific evidence to explain it?
I spoke to my colleague Dr. Robert Shmerling. He is clinical chief of rheumatology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He noted that people have been asking these questions for many years without finding good answers. Here’s what we do know.
There are many potential weather factors that could affect arthritis symptoms, including humidity, temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure. Studies have examined the effects of these weather factors, but the results have been inconclusive. In some cases they were contradictory.
Two recent studies have shed more light on this question. Both found that the weather does indeed have an impact on arthritis symptoms.
In the first study, Dutch researchers enrolled 222 people with osteoarthritis of the hip. They compared their reported symptoms with a variety of weather variables. They found that over a two-year period, pain and stiffness were slightly worse when barometric (air) pressure and humidity were higher.
The second study included more than 800 adults with osteoarthritis of the hip, knee or hands. In this study, changes in weather did not affect symptoms, but higher humidity was linked with increasing pain and stiffness. This was especially true in colder weather.
Now what? In other words, how is it helpful to know if specific characteristics of the weather have a clear impact on arthritis pain and stiffness? After all, it’s not as if all patients can pick up and move to a more arthritis-friendly climate.
Information is useful even if it doesn’t immediately lead to a new treatment or prevention strategy. For example, identifying a link between a particular type of weather and joint symptoms might help us understand the causes and mechanisms of arthritis symptoms. And that might lead to better treatments or strategies.
It might also help to understand why some people feel worse in certain circumstances while others notice no change (or even feel better) in those same environments. Those results could help us understand subtle differences between types of arthritis or the ways individuals respond to them.
Your question also reminds me of something I’ve said before in response to other questions. When studies show that something is true for the average patient, it does not necessarily mean that it’s true for every patient. Their bodies may be different in some way that we do not yet understand.
Even if the studies I mentioned did not find that the weather affected the arthritis pain of the average patient, I’d believe a person — like you — who swears that the weather affects her arthritis pain. No one can know your pain like you can, and no doctor should dismiss it.