Weathering Pain

Why do arthritis symptoms seem to shift with prevailing winds?

By Mary Anne Dunkin | Reviewed Oct. 6, 2021

You brace for back pain when cold air moves in, and you swear you can tell when a storm is coming by the ache in your knees. But mention that to a health professional and they may think your head is in the clouds.

Although many people say weather affects their arthritis, there’s little scientific evidence to back up their claims, says William Dixon, PhD, director of the Versus Arthritis Centre for Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, England.   Many studies have examined the weather-pain connection, but they have failed to reach conclusions, due in part to the small number of participants and short follow-up periods, he says.

Additionally, studies make assumptions about the weather conditions participants are exposed to – for example, by assuming they’re close to home during the study period.

Mobile Tracking

Dixon and his colleagues got around those limitations for their study, published in 2019 in npj Digital Medicine, by turning to a ubiquitous piece of technology: smart phones. The devices allowed the more than 2,600 study participants to easily enter information in real time over 15 months, without having to recall symptoms or hassle with paper diaries at a later time. Plus, the phones’ GPS allowed the scientists to collect precise weather data where participants were.

Analysis of that data showed “significant yet modest” correlation between pain and three weather components – relative humidity, air pressure and wind speed – even after accounting for mood and physical activity. Specifically, increases in humidity or wind speed were associated with higher odds of a “pain event,” while increases in atmospheric pressure were associated with lower odds. Temperature, however, did not have a significant association with pain.

Other studies have found correlations between seasonal fluctuations and arthritis symptoms. In one systematic review and meta-analysis, gout was found to develop significantly more in spring, between March and July, when temperatures were rising. Another study looked at a database of rheumatoid arthritis patients and found that RA activity was higher in the spring and lower in the fall. Neither of these determined, however, what climatologic changes led to the increase and decrease in disease activity and symptoms.

Weather Connection?

Terrance Starz, MD, finds Dixon’s study intriguing, but believes the findings are too simplistic. Dr. Starz, a clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, doesn’t deny an association between weather and pain, but he says it’s unlikely to be a direct connection.

“These are multifactorial issues, and it is hard to separate one from another,” he says. For example, for some people, stretches of cloudy days may lead to low mood, which may cause them to dwell more on pain. Or on windy, rainy days people may stay in and be less active, which can exacerbate pain and stiffness. Furthermore, the effect may be different for different forms of arthritis, which the study didn’t examine.

Dixon believes the findings offer a number of benefits, including validation – evidence of the long-held belief that weather can affect pain – and insight into the nature of the weather-pain connection that could potentially help pain researchers find new treatments.

If you want to find out more about how weather affects your arthritis pain, check out our pain resources.

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