Arthritic Joint Pain

Fact or Myth: Weather Affects Arthritic Joint Pain

46 million Americans suffer from arthritis.

The onset of cold weather or rain can be detected by joint pain—just as a patient suffering from arthritis.  Can medical science explain this mystery?

If you've ever had an eccentric family member predict the rain simply by the pain of an arthritic knee, you're probably not alone. As far as health-related myths go, there may not be one more infamous than the supposed connection between weather conditions and the onset of arthritic symptoms.

But from a scientific view, how does the theory hold up? According to James Fant, MD, associate professor of medicine and director of rheumatology at the School of Medicine's University Specialty Clinics, there appears to be a definite connection.
"It's one of the most common questions that patients will ask," said Fant. "At first I doubted because there was not a lot of scientific evidence to support the correlation between arthritic symptoms and the weather. But I've been practicing for nearly 20 years and I've heard it so often from so many patients that I know there's something to it."

Although it remains a vague science, Fant explains the connection in simple terms. "I may not be able to explain the exact mechanism—whether they're humidity or differences in the barometric pressure and how they translate into causing symptoms," said Fant. "But I believe there is a connection simply because I've heard too many patients tell me that they are absolutely sure when it's going to rain because their knees will hurt more."

Fant explains that there are different theories about why weather would affect arthritic conditions—the most common theory concerning barometric pressure.
"Suppose you have an inflamed joint that is subject to swelling," said Fant. "If the barometric pressure is decreased, then that would allow the inflamed tissue to swell more, simply because there is less atmospheric pressure holding the tissue back. If there are nerves in that tissue, then those nerves would be stimulated by that swelling and that would translate into pain."

Cold weather is another mechanism that could translate into arthritic symptoms, according to Fant. In the same way that a decrease in barometric pressure decreases swelling of an inflamed joint, cold weather would have the opposite effect. Fant said that if cold temperatures shrink tissue down, it pulls on nerves, thereby causing pain.
Although there is still not a specific mechanism that shows how weather affects arthritis, Fant says that cold weather tends to create lifestyle conditions that can lead to arthritic symptoms.

"A lot of the rheumatic conditions I treat become worse with a sedentary lifestyle—a condition that is more prevalent in the winter months," said Fant. "During winter, many people lead a less active lifestyle and their joints tend to stiffen up. This is commonly referred to as gelling, where your joints become ‘gelled' because you are sitting in one position too long and it causes pain and stiffness."

Beyond rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, Fant also says that the patients he sees for lupus can be directly affected by weather conditions.

"I've treated lupus patients with a condition called Raynaud's syndrome," said Fant. "Raynaud's causes cold-induced vasospasms—or decreased blood supply in the hands—and it can definitely worsen in colder conditions." Fant also says that two-thirds to three-fourths of all lupus patients suffer from photosensitivity.  For lupus patients, prolonged exposure to the sun can result in skin rashes in addition to activating the internal features of lupus, like kidney disease, arthritis and pleurisy.
But for some of his other patients, Fant says the sun's warmth can provide symptomatic relief.

"With the more prevalent arthritis types like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, sun exposure, because it provides warmth, can make you feel better. There's no evidence that it actually changes the condition but it can affect you symptomatically in a positive way."

Beyond weather-related symptoms, Fant says there are over 120 diagnosed conditions that result in arthritis or joint pain.

For more information, contact the University Specialty Clinic's Division of Rheumatology at 803-540-1000.