Arthritis pain and the weather

Doctor's hand holding a wrinkled elderly hand
Doctor's hand holding a wrinkled elderly hand

Many people claim that their arthritis symptoms get worse when the atmospheric pressure drops, just before it rains, or is more painful in colder weather. While there is no firm scientific evidence to prove this, there have been some interesting studies in recent years.

See also: Feeling swollen and achy? It could be down to inflammation

See also:
Seven foods to ease the pain of arthritis

At the end of 2016, a study of 12,500 Britons found that chronic pain worsens when the weather is cold but eases when the sun shines. Researchers looked at the link between osteoarthritis symptoms and different types of weather. They found that when the temperature increased between February and April, people spent less time in severe pain.

The lead researcher behind the study - Cloudy With A Chance Of Pain – said the results could lead to new treatment options and even see sufferers use advanced weather forecasts to predict when they are likely to experience more pain.

Professor Will Dixon, director of Manchester University's Arthritis Research UK Centre for Epidemiology, said: "These are very preliminary findings but we're already seeing interesting trends suggesting both rainfall and lack of sunshine may be associated with levels of pain.

"In my arthritis clinic weather is one of the most common things that people say influences their pain. Yet despite so many people seeing a relationship, no researchers have proven which weather features influence pain. This research could open the door to treatments that potentially help millions of people."

Meanwhile, a 2007 study from Tufts University in Boston, US, found that every 10-degree drop in temperature corresponded with an incremental increase in arthritis pain.

And In 2014, Dutch researchers found that changes in barometric pressure and humidity had an effect on pain perception of those with severe hip arthritis.

Not only that, many people with arthritis believe they can predict the weather. Research published in the journal Pain, found that two-out-of-three people with chronic pain said that they experienced increased pain before the weather changed.

Why weather affects joint pain
So why does a change in temperature cause achy joints? Scientists aren't sure why this happens but believe that certain atmospheric conditions may increase swelling in the joints.

Some experts suggest that when your body gets cold, it allows "slow" nerves to send more messages, which results in the body experiencing more pain.

When the pressure drops, there's less pressure on the body to keep fluids compressed. People with healthy joints don't notice the change, but as the fluid expands in inflamed joints, the extra pressure can affect already sensitised nerves.

Another theory is that low temperatures might increase the stickiness of synovial fluid, which lubricates joints, making them stiffer and more sensitive to pain.

In other words, weather changes don't make your arthritis worse as such – but it may make you more sensitive to the pain.

Would moving to a different climate help?
Many people find that their arthritis symptoms improve while on holiday and think that moving to a warmer or drier climate may help. Unfortunately, once you move to a new climate, day to day weather changes are still likely to affect your pain levels – and no matter what the climate is like, your arthritis will remain.

There may be one benefit of moving to a warmer climate, however. You're likely to get out and about more when the weather is dry and mild. Exercise has been shown to improve arthritis pain and stronger muscles are better able to support your joints – and the more regularly you exercise the better.

How you can help ease joint pain
If you know a change in the weather is coming, it can help to take preventative measures. For instance, you might want to think about exercising before the rain/storm comes to help minimise joint inflammation before the barometric pressure drops. If your joints are prone to swelling, you may want to consider wearing a support wrap – or applying heat or cold treatments.

Longer term, it's important to watch your weight, stop smoking, and exercise regularly. And of course, make sure you see your doctor for regular medication reviews.

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