Arthritis and Weather
Can arthritis pain predict the weather? Are weather and health problems related? The medical evidence is unclear.
The Theory continued...
The suspect most often singled out by arthritis sufferers and
researchers is a drop in barometric pressure, which is the pressure exerted by
the air around us. A drop in barometric pressure often precedes a storm, and
the theory goes that a decrease in the air pressure can cause the tissues
around the joints to swell, causing arthritic pain. Proponents of the idea use
a balloon in a barometric chamber as a simulator. If the pressure outside
drops, the air in the balloon expands. If the same happened in the area around
an arthritic joint, the expansion or swelling could irritate the nerves,
"It could be that the sensitivity of the nerves is so
highly tuned to barometric pressure that they can respond to even minor
changes," says Frances Wilder, PhD, an epidemiologist and the director of
research at the Arthritis Research Institute of America in Clearwater, Fla.
However, it's important to note that this process is entirely
theoretical because the swelling -- if it really is taking place -- is
happening on such a small scale that it cannot be detected by any scientific
means. Since there is nothing that can be charted medically, study of the
subject is reliant on subjective accounts of arthritic pain, which are hard to
compare from one person to another.
"It's not as if I've seen active changes in inflammation as
a result of weather changes," Botstein tells WebMD, "and there aren't
tests that would reflect such changes in inflammation on a day-to-day
Driscoll sees a problem with the barometric pressure theory.
"People need to realize that the pressure changes associated with storms
are rather small," he says. In fact, he observes that the changes
associated with a storm are about equivalent to what a person experiences in
going up an elevator in a tall building. So far, there haven't been many
reports of people with arthritis hobbled by elevator rides in the medical
Despite the widespread belief in the connection, looking over
the scientific studies of the relationship between weather and health makes two
things apparent: The literature doesn't agree and there isn't all that much of
"The subject of pain and weather greatly interests
patients, and it's amazing that it doesn't interest more researchers or
clinicians in the United States," says Weisberg. "I have patients who
talk about it with me every day."
Part of the reason for the lack of interest in this country
probably lies in the fact that the studies haven't turned up much. Wilder and
Weisberg themselves have both independently worked on studies that didn't show
any striking connection.
"We have a problem here in the field of human
biometeorology because so much of it is conditioned by what amount to old
wives' tales and ancient beliefs that by and large have not been corroborated
by scientific investigation," says Driscoll. "The weather has been
blamed for everything from heart attack to hangnail."