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Arthritis and Weather

Can arthritis pain predict the weather? Are weather and health problems related? The medical evidence is unclear.
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WebMD Feature

Many of us have an older relative who claims to have an arthritic joint with the power to tell the future, at least meteorologically. She will stare out the window on a perfectly pleasant, sunny day, distractedly rubbing her painful shoulder, and proclaim solemnly, "A storm's a comin'."

She's hardly alone in her belief. The idea that certain painful health conditions are affected by the weather is both widespread and ancient, dating back to at least Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C and no doubt earlier, according to James N. Weisberg, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in treating painful conditions.

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But despite the venerable pedigree of the belief, should we ditch our Doppler radar and our well-groomed television meteorologists and replace them with Achy Joint Bulletins issued by our great aunts?

Probably not. Although many believe in the connection between weather and health, most medical studies have come up with equivocal support at best. So if there isn't a connection, or if the connection is relatively unimportant, why do we believe in it so strongly?

Human Biometeorology

As a science, human biometeorology studies the relationship between atmospheric conditions and people. There are of course all sorts of indisputable and obvious connections between weather and health, such as the incidence of sunstroke on hot days or frostbite on cold ones, according to Dennis Driscoll, emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M and a meteorologist who specializes in human biometeorology. There are also significant but less direct connections between weather and health, such as the onset of allergies during pollen season. In such cases, the atmospheric conditions are clearly affecting health, but they are playing more of a supportive role than a primary one, Driscoll says.

But some researchers are interested in looking at less direct potential connections between atmospheric conditions -- like temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity -- and painful conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and sinus or migraine headaches. The difference here is that the connections are not as obvious and the mechanism that would cause the symptom isn't known.

The Theory

There is a seemingly endless supply of anecdotal evidence backing up the belief that weather can affect painful conditions like arthritis -- just ask some relatives at the next family picnic. Plenty of doctors see it as well.

"Most of my patients complain of pain on rainy days," says Gary Botstein, a rheumatologist practicing in Decatur, Ga. "A lot of them can tell you if a storm is coming based on their pain."

"Some of my patients are absolutely convinced of the connection," Weisberg tells WebMD, "and they run the gamut from people who are physicians themselves to those who never got beyond the eighth grade."

It's important to stress that doctors and researchers do not believe that weather actually makes arthritis or any of these diseases worse. Instead, the idea is that weather can affect your symptoms. But why would changes in the weather cause pain? No one is entirely sure.

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