The link between weather and rheumatic pain

Types of rheumatismrheumatoid_arthritis

‘My joints ache.’ This is a very general statement and doesn’t give anyone a clue of the pain’s cause. To call aching bones ‘rheumatism’ is also very general. Rheumatism is a collective word that refers to the pain of a variety of disorders, including inflamed, infected, injured or worn-out muscles and joints. Arthritis, a term often interchanged with rheumatism, is just one of its many ailments.

The following list includes three examples of common disorders:

  • Osteoarthritis is one of the most common joint diseases. Wear and tear during someone’s active life leaves them living their later years with painful and swollen joints. Sports injuries, repetitive strain, demanding physical labour and other factors often initiate the problems at an early age.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is not the result of wear and tear. Medical professionals believe it is an auto-immune disease, in which the body’s immune system has gone awry and attacks itself. While it is mostly seen as disabling and destroying joints and surrounding tissue, rheumatoid arthritis sometimes attacks other body parts, such as the heart, lungs and eyes. Rheumatoid arthritis develops at any age, but most often between the ages of 20 and 55.
  • Fibromyalgia, also known as muscular rheumatism or fibrositis, is an inflammation of muscle tissue. It causes pain and stiffness, particularly in the areas of neck, shoulders, hips and spine. The patient may also experience fatigue, sleep disorders and other symptoms. Symptoms of fibromyalgia can occur at any age.

Weather effect on arthritis and fibromyalgia

Research and surveys overwhelmingly support ‘folklore’ and anecdotal evidence of weather sensitivity amongst people with rheumatism. Some researchers go so far as building climate chambers where they can recreate certain weather conditions. Depending in which study and survey you want to believe, the proportion of people whose rheumatism was affected by weather ranges between 70% and 90%. One thing is clear, however: weather doesn’t cause rheumatism and doesn’t damage joints – but it does affect the severity of rheumatic pain.

Weather-sensitive people with rheumatism report more pain on damp, cold days that have rapidly falling barometric pressure. Thunderstorm activity and air ionization can add to this. Depending on the type of rheumatic disorders, some people can predict well in advance the coming of a weather front, others ‘feel’ a nearby thunderstorm and some hear their joints tell them that it will rain. As with headache and migraine sufferers, the weather change takes the blame. But once the weather stabilizes the symptoms will, too.

Several theories exist on the mechanisms of weather sensitivity and rheumatism. One explains that the increased pain is due to the irritation of nerve ends from frequent and rapid changes in weather elements. Also, bones and muscles have different densities, and the unequal expansion and contraction during temperature and humidity variations may increase the pain in inflamed or injured joints and muscles.

Another plausible cause is the rapid change in barometric pressure before and during the passage of a weather front. Membranes and fluids in the joints expand when the outside barometric pressure drops. The expansion puts pressure on the inflamed tissue, causing increased pain. Some people with rheumatism also report increased pain during air travel in cabins with reduced air pressure.

Treatment of arthritis and fibromyalgia

If cold and damp are the main culprits, why doesn’t everyone with rheumatism move to warmer and drier climates? Some do, but recent evidence shows that pain due to changes in temperature and humidity is relative. Once your body acclimatizes to the warm and dry conditions, a drop of temperature and rise in humidity to levels that you found comfortable before the move causes almost the same negative symptoms. The perceived gain is so small that rheumatologists rarely recommend a change in location. Mind you, a ‘friendlier’ climate can have some emotional benefits –  and a good mood makes pain more bearable.

Treatment with medication and physical therapy depends on the type of rheumatism. Doctors often recommend relaxation therapy and light exercises. Swimming, for instance, exercises the muscles without putting much strain on the joints. Anti-inflammatory drugs are the main weapons to combat the symptoms, while new drugs arrive on the market regularly. Complementary medicine, such as acupuncture and massage, can also provide some relief for sufferers.

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