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'Storm's coming, my joints are aching!' Can people with arthritis really predict the weather?

Kate Doyle, Saturday July 7, 2018 - 08:00 EST
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A feel for the forecast: Can your arthritic pains predict the weather? - ABC

Jan Hughes encountered the idea of arthritis and weather many years ago when she was a young nurse on the wards.

"I used to have to take the gentlemen out for a shower and they would say to me, 'Oh nurse, no, don't take me out. I'm riddled with arthritis. It's going to rain, don't you know?' and sure enough it would rain that night or the next night," she said.



Now that she suffers from arthritis herself, she said would like to know if there really was any truth to the tale.

"Once you've got one of these conditions, you do start to take more interest in how things are affecting you," Ms Hughes said.

"Because the medications are harsh, they knock you around. If I know for sure it's going to be wet next week, I could perhaps start now with my medication so that when the weather kicks in, I'm still freely mobile."

What do the grannies say?



The first thing I did when taking on this issue was to consult my personal arthritis expert, my nana.

She immediately took it upon herself to consult her walking group which, she assured me, was made up of many arthritis sufferers.

She reports:

"The first thing they said was yes, of course the weather affects you! It was a very quick answer."

She said that the "older ones" were particularly convinced. Nana is 79 and would definitely not consider herself "old."

"No one said 'No'. In fact, various ones said, 'Oh my dad used to say that' or 'My mum used to say that there's a change coming because all my arthritis spots are playing up.'"



Although nana's arthritis has been better for the past few years she remembers it well.

"When you get too cold or when the weather is changing, you get a pain in your fingers," she said.

"We're having an extremely cold spell here in South Australia and I have been hit with a bout of gout, which is from arthritis in my feet.

"I've had to try and keep my feet extra warm."

affecting different joints.

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two biggies and they are quite different. Rheumatoid is an autoimmune disease whereas osteo occurs when joints try to heal themselves from physical strain.

Both cause pain around the joints. And nana is right, gout fits within the arthritis family.



What about the science?

The scientific community is far less convinced than my nana's walking group.

Associate Professor Manuela Ferreira, from the Institute of Bone and Joint Research, Kolling Institute, .

To avoid bias, the 345 patients weren't asked directly if the weather affected their arthritis. Instead the researchers kept tabs on the patients' pain level and made a comparison with the weather at the time.



The study found no association between weather parameters and pain.

"What we found was that for people with knee osteoarthritis ... whether it's warm or cold weather, it's raining, humid or dry, not raining, the levels of pain are actually very similar," Associate Professor Ferreira said.

She said other studies showed some association but many of those did not account for association bias.

"When patients have an increase in pain, they were asked, 'What do you think caused the change in your pain?' And then they say, 'I think it was the weather'.

"There is a little bit of a bias in that type of association."



Does that mean that we're completely ruling out a link between weather and increased joint pain?

Associate Professor Ferreira said yes, for people with knee osteoarthritis.

"Maybe [with] other types of arthritis or joint arthritis, it could be the case.

"I think that we are still lacking studies in those areas with those conditions."

What about other types of arthritis and studies?

I dipped my toe into a number of scientific papers on the potential links between arthritis and weather and found contradictory conclusions and many different methods. These are a few recent studies which were designed to avoid association bias:
tested 133 patients with rheumatoid arthritis over six months. It found that rheumatoid arthritis disease activity was significantly lower on sunny days and when humidity was low.
found there were associations between pain and weather in their 810 participants with osteoarthritis in the knee, hand and/or hip.
using data from 1,552,842 US patients' medical insurance claims found there was no relation between rainfall and outpatient visits for joint or back pain.

Neogi et al. 2014 suggests there is a relation between high temperatures, low humidity and gout. So it's not supporting my nana's claim that her gout is bad because of the cold. Sorry nana!



The theories

Before telling me about why people think weather could be linked to joint pain, Dr Ferreira stressed that this something that "people used to believe a long, long, long time ago; hundreds and hundreds of years ago".

She said that one theory was that the cool weather could make the joints stiffer, causing pain.

Another was that the weather changed your behaviour. Cold weather might cause you to stay home and not exercise as much or you might walk less quickly in the rain.

"But again, when we actually looked, whenever people had an increase in their pain, there was just no association with a change in the weather at that period," she said.

"Those are theories, but we can't prove that they are real, unfortunately."

Arthritic forecasts

Despite all of this uncertainty, there are websites that claim to be able to predict when arthritis could be bad, based upon the weather.

is a site that offers this service in Australia. When I wrote to ask them for more information on how their system worked they replied:

Unfortunately, the AccuWeather arthritis index is proprietary information and we are unable to share any details.



The includes a Current Arthritis Index for places in the US. It is also based on a "proprietary forecast" from AccuWeather.

The website cites a study from Tufts University, it says found that "every 10-degree drop in temperature corresponded with an incremental increase in arthritis pain".

"In addition, relatively low barometric pressure, low temperatures and precipitation can increase pain."

What to make of this, then?



My nana was undeterred when I told her the science was not necessarily backing her up. She wanted to know if the scientists have ever had arthritis themselves.

Dr Ferreira said knee osteoarthritis patients should focus on what they could change: diet and exercise, but not the weather.

She said they should talk to their doctor before making any changes.

Jan Hughes asked her question in the ABC Facebook group Weather Obsessed. If you have weather questions, knowledge to share, or would generally like to chat about the weather,


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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