Does weather make your arthritis worse?
Some people with arthritis swear that changes in the weather, particularly cold fronts or storms, increase the pain they feel. Others say it has no effect on their condition.
“It’s one of those kind of things that doctors don’t talk about, but patients love to talk about it,” said rheumatologist Michelle Costa, DO.
There’s little scientific evidence that weather worsens progression of the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, said Dr. Costa, who works at the Cape Cod Rheumatology Center in Falmouth. If it did, you’d see a lot fewer cases in warm places like the British Virgin Islands, and many more in cold locations, such as around the North Sea. Distribution of osteoarthritis is evenly distributed worldwide, she said.
However, that doesn’t mean that some patients aren’t feeling weather-related pain.
“It’s real with them,” Dr. Costa said. “If it’s true for them, I respect it.”
Studies of associations between weather and arthritis have had varying results. A review of 12 studies, published in the Journal of General Practice in 2016, said proof that cold climate worsens the pain of arthritis symptoms is weak, but some studies and laboratory experiments have shown cold and damp weather can increase pain and stiffness. A more recent study, published in Nature in October 2019 by researchers associated with the University of Manchester, in England, gathered cellphone data from 13,000 people with long-term pain conditions, including arthritis. It found participants reported more pain on days with low atmospheric pressure, high humidity and high winds.
Patients who do report weather-related symptoms typically have osteoarthritis, a condition bought on by the wearing down of joints as we age, Dr. Costa said. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, don’t often complain of weather conditions worsening their pain, she said.
Rheumatoid arthritis is much less common than osteoarthritis, affecting only about 1 percent of the population.
How people experience pain varies with the individual. Some people with advanced osteoarthritis don’t report much discomfort, while others with relatively mild cases are relatively disabled, Dr. Costa said.
“Most people have good days and bad days,” she said, advising those with osteoarthritis who experience more pain with bad weather to “baby yourself that day.”
Treating Your Pain
She suggested these remedies for symptomatic relief:
- Over-the-counter ointments and creams, which may contain salicylates (a type of NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), menthol and camphor (which can feel hot or cool), lidocaine (a local anesthetic) or capsaicin (the substance that makes peppers hot). Dr. Costa cautioned that capsaicin can irritate skin.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, including the NSAIDs aspirin (Anacin), ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil), and naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be used for mild pain relief, but it doesn’t help fight inflammation as NSAIDs do, according to the Arthritis Society.
- Applying heat to the affected joint.
- Bracing the joint. Bracing a knee does more than support it; it can change the way pain signals are sensed, she said.
Be sure to check with your doctor to ensure these medications don’t interfere with prescription drugs or worsen an existing condition, Dr. Costa said. Just because NSAIDs can be bought over the counter doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe to take for extended periods or in large doses, which can cause heart damage, stroke, or stomach and intestinal problems, according to a 2017 article in Physician’s Weekly. People with kidney, liver or heart disease, or high blood pressure, should only take NSAIDs with their doctor’s approval, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
One thing patients can do to keep osteoarthritis pain at bay is exercise, Dr. Costa said.
“The more you move, the better off you are,” she said.
Dr. Costa recommended seeing a physical therapist to find the exercises that would be most beneficial.
“A visit with a good physical therapist is worth three doctor visits any day of the week,” she joked. “You take home what you learn and use it.”
She also suggested weight loss to ease pressure on joints and improve overall health.