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Old Wives’ Tale #2: Arthritis Pain and the Weather

I am sure you have heard it before–perhaps you have even complained about it yourself: The weather is cold and wet and rainy and my arthritis pain is acting up again. Most people believe this to be true from what they have heard from others, and what they themselves believe and have observed  to be true.

But is it actually true?

Does arthritis pain actually get worse when the weather gets bad?

The short answer is: we can’t be totally sure from a scientific perspective, but it seems from the best evidence that we have that osteoarthritis pain does not appear to affected by changes in the weather.

AND THAT’S THE SHORT ANSWER!

The fact of the matter is that it is not a simple narrative, and offers many interesting topics for discussion, not the least of which is how we attribute cause to certain things such as arthritis pain. Scientifically speaking, it order to determine a cause, one has to perform an experiment and it has to be structured in a certain way to answer the question of cause. Specifically, one has to manipulate an independent variable against a dependent variable and observe what happens.

To put this in other words, in the particular case of arthritis pain and the weather, one has to be able to manipulate the exposure to weather, controlling all other variables, so weather is independent of factors that might be related to pain, such as a person’s mood and other medical probelms, such as a slipped disc or depression, and measure arthritis pain as a result.

Even to a casual observer, who knows nothing about science, understands that the weather can’t be predicted and much less controlled! Therefore, the best evidence we have is to a great degree associative and correlative. Furthermore, pain is highly subjective and its measurement is variable from individual to individual, and often depends on a host of factors in a person’s life.

That being said, people might accept what I have said as true, but are not willing to abandon the belief completely because it is not what they believe to have experienced. This is sometimes the most difficult thing to overcome: our own preconceptions, expectations, and biases.

As a professor of surgery once told me: The eye sees what the mind knows.

So, does the weather affect arthritis pain? We can’t discount it completely, but it seems not to be the case. Likewise, it is just as reasonable to assume that crummy days make us feel crummier when we have pain, and we remember that more when compared to perfectly beautiful days when we are suffering from pain.  We certainly seem to adapt to warmer climates more easily than cold climates, as any of us who lives in a cold weather climate and long for a warmer weather climate would most likely agree with. ( That does sound like me a little bit!)

In any case, the topic does not involve a simple narrative, although we might like it to, and is in the end, like many things in medicine, nuanced.

But are there musculoskeletal conditions affected by the weather? In this case, I can say YES. But the culprit is not always bad weather. Here are some examples:

1. Lupus: Often ultraviolet light is harmful to those who suffer from lupus, as the ultraviolet rays can flare up lupus reactions in the skin. Likewise, someone the medication that used to treat lupus, and related disorders, can sensitivity to light.

2. Raynaud’s phenomena: This condition, which I have written about in this blog, is often induced by exposure to cold air.

3. Muscle cramps: Excercising in excessively warm conditions can cause a person to sweat and subsequently dehydrate and deplete vitamins and minerals resulting in muscle cramps. A multi-billion drink industry has sprung up to address this issue, which I am not always so sure about, and hope to address soon in my blog.  That being said, “warming” up is important in any weather before you work out! And though stretching out can be easier in warmer weather than cooler weather, but it is more important to stretch out sufficiently and effectively than what temperature it is outside.

4. Psoriasis: In this case, ultraviolet light actually helps. The itchy and unsightly patchy rashes of psoriasis, often referred to as the heartbreak of psoriasis, are often helped immensely by exposure to controlled doses of UV radiation abundant in sunshine.

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