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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, causing pain.

"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 basis."

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 literature.

The Science

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 it.

"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."

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