Many arthritis sufferers believe that cold, damp conditions aggravate their joints, and doctors say they may be right.
"As a rheumatologist, I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes about people with arthritis who say they can predict the weather based on how their joints are feeling,"Rheumatologist Alexa Meara, M.D. said.
Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints and symptoms include swelling, pain, reduced range of motion and stiffness.
"Most research shows that some patients’ joints are more affected by the weather than others, but we can’t always predict who that will be,"Meara said.
Chief Medical Director of WebMD, Michael Smith, M.D. said it’s clear that many people report an increase in joint pain with weather changes. However, he said it is much less clear which weather changes affect joint pain and why.
"The factor most likely at play appears to be barometric pressure. The challenge is that some studies show pain increases with a fall in barometric pressure while others show a rise in pain with a rise in barometric pressure,"Smith said.
A study published in 1997 in the International Journal of Biometeorology examined a possible relationship between the pain and rigidity of arthritis and the weather variables of temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and precipitation.
The study found that both decreased temperature and increased relative humidity are independently associated with increased pain and rigidity in arthritis sufferers.
However, other small studies have yet to be able to find the same results, so the doctors say inconsistency in research makes it tough for doctors to draw any firm conclusions.
"That said, many people report an increase in pain with a rise in precipitation and cold air, conditions consistent with a fall in barometric pressure. Biologically, the connection between barometric pressure changes and joint pain makes sense,"Smith said.
Smith said the idea is that when the barometric pressure drops as bad weather moves in, this causes less pressure pushing on our bodies. The barometric pressure changes the synovial fluid pressures in the joint, which causes irritation and pain as the tissue swells.
"As the pressure changes in the environment, that affects the pressure in our joints and in the surrounding structures, such as our tendons and muscles. The change in pressure leads to an increase in pain. However, any effect happens microscopically, making it difficult to study these changes and make a firm conclusion on the cause. So we have consistent evidence that weather changes affect joint pain, but which weather changes, and why, is not clear,"Smith said.
This cold weather is making my old person arthritis knees hurt like no other, someone send help 🙃— Maddie Blakely (@mnblakely56) November 18, 2018
According to Smith, temperature also seems to play a role, potentially separately from pressure. A study has even shown a direct correlation between falling temperatures and increasing joint pain.
"With cold, we know that colder temperatures cause stiffness of the joints and the surrounding structures that support the joints,"Smith said.
Experts say when you add humidity on top of low temperatures, the impact on joint pain seems to magnify.
"One possible factor is the decrease in activity that typically comes with worsening weather. We know that movement is good for the joints, especially for someone with arthritis. So decreased activity leads to worsening pain,"Smith said.
The pain appears to precede the actual changes in weather.
"For example, as the barometric pressure falls, joint pain seems to increase, even prior to any precipitation. With decrease in temperature, studies have shown an increase in pain as temperatures fall,"Smith said.
Smith said not everyone experiences relief in joint pain with weather calms, but most do seem to have decreased pain after bad weather passes.
"The best thing to help relieve weather-related joint pain is to stay active no matter what the weather is. Good options to help maintain joint health include warm water therapy, stretching, yoga or walking,"Meara said.