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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 Science continued...

Weisberg is similarly skeptical. "Everyone believes in this connection throughout the ages, but there doesn't seem to be real evidence for it," he says. "There have been anecdotal studies, a few case reports, a smattering of literature here and there. Interest in the subject perks up occasionally and then dies down when nothing is found."

There has been some work that showed a possible connection. Believers typically cite a famous study conducted in Philadelphia in the '60s by researcher John Hollander. In the study, Hollander isolated several patients with rheumatoid arthritis in a sealed chamber and gradually adjusted the atmospheric conditions. He found some evidence that swelling and stiffness increased with a rise in humidity and a drop in barometric pressure.

The Skeptics

So since most studies of the connection between painful conditions and weather have not found meaningful results, why do people keep coming back to it?

Part of the problem with studying the relationship between weather and health is in the sheer number of possible atmospheric conditions -- including barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, precipitation, and so on -- and in the possible symptoms. There's also a great deal of difference in how people say they feel the weather relates to their pain. Some say the pain precedes a weather change, others say that they coincide, and still others say that it follows them. The variety of combinations may be one of the reasons that researchers keep returning to the subject. There's always that chance that the right combination of conditions or symptoms haven't been studied.

"I think the fact that this 'myth' has persisted far longer than many others makes me wonder if there really is something to it," says Wilder, whose recent study did not turn up any statistically meaningful connections between osetoarthritis and weather changes. "I think it's possible science hasn't caught up with the anecdotal evidence."

But Wilder agrees that the evidence is shaky and that other explanations are possible.

A Psychological Explanation

There are other possibilities for the apparent connection between weather and pain. For instance, Driscoll and Weisberg argue that people may tend toward gloominess on rainy days, and that their bad mood may make their pain more difficult to bear.

The possibility that psychology plays a role in shaping our responses to weather and pain doesn't mean that the pain isn't real or that weather isn't having an effect.. Weisberg speculates about the numerous indirect connections that could be made between weather and health; for instance, might a gloomy day make people unhappy and stay in bed longer, causing them to feel more stiff?

There may be deeper psychological processes at work. Everyone's been struck by a feeling of apparent clairvoyance when we happen to be thinking about an old friend who calls on the phone a few minutes later. What we don't remember are the countless times that our reminiscing doesn't result in that phone call.

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