Can weather conditions really exacerbate physical pain? The Wolff family of New Jersey was recently debating whether or not to go on a planned park trip when 6-year-old Leora had an idea: “Let’s call Grandma. Her knees always know when it’s going to rain!”
Leora’s grandmother, Esther Polatsek, says she started feeling sensitive to the weather in her 20’s. That’s when a broken bone in her foot would ache whenever a snowstorm was coming. She’s now 66, and has rheumatoid arthritis. Mrs. Polatsek says she has flare-ups whenever the weather is about to change.
“It’s just uncanny. Sometimes it’ll be gorgeous out, but I’ll have this awful pain. And sure enough, the next morning it rains.” she says.
Hippocrates in 400 B.C. noticed that some illnesses were seasonal, and the traditional Chinese medicine term for rheumatism (fengshi bing) translates to “wind-damp disease.”
Some studies have linked changes in barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature to worsening pain from rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis, as well as headaches, tooth aches, jaw pain, low-back pain, fibromylagia, and other pains.
One theory is that the falling barometric pressure that often precedes a storm alters the pressure inside joints. Robert Jamison, a professor of anesthesia and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says, “think of a balloon that has as much air pressure on the outside pushing in as on the inside pushing out.” As the outside pressure drops, the balloon – or joint – expands, pressing against surrounding nerves and other tissues. “That’s probably the effect that people are feeling, particularly if those nerves are irritated in the first place,” Dr. Jamision says.
However, not everyone with arthritis has weather-related pain. Patience White, a rheumatologist at George Washington University School of Medicine says, “it’s much more common in people with some sort of effusion,” an abnormal buildup of fluid in or around a joint.
And, some weather conditions appear to relieve pain. In one study, the warm, high-pressure Chinook winds common to western Canada lessened patients’ neuropathic pain, the kind brought on by illness or injury. For others, the same climate increased migraines and sinus headaches.
For some people, they say they feel better in warm, dry climates where weather conditions seldom change. For Mrs. Polatsek, the rheumatoid arthritis patient, a trip to Israel was a welcome relief. “I felt like I was 20 years younger when I stepped off the plane,” she says.
Studies though have not consistently found the benefits of one climate over another. “There really is no place in the U.S. where people report more or less weather-related pain,” says Dr. Jamison. Visiting a warm climate may bring temporary relief, but he adds, “if you live there full time, your body seems to acclimatize and you become sensitive to even subtle weather changes.” wsj.com 10/13