With winter soon approaching, people with arthritis often think about how the seasons and daily weather affect their pain and function. Studies have looked at this question, and have confirmed some popular ideas and raised questions about others.
Many of my patients with arthritis feel that the weather affects them, and studies have confirmed this. However, studies have shown that while some, for example, feel worse in cold and humid situations, this is not universal. In fact, they found that different people felt worse in different types of weather conditions, but it stayed consistent for each individual person. Thus, a person can learn what most affects them and try to counter the effects of the weather. In a recent article, it showed that the most common weather to adversely impact people with osteoarthritis was when it was cold and moist. Another article, which looked at multiple prior studies in rheumatoid arthritis, suggested that higher humidity was a negative factor, but that temperature was controversial. Good news with the winter coming- one study did not show any increase in pain during the winter for most people.
For example, lupus patients may have Raynaud’s phenomenon, where the blood vessels going to their hands and feet can constrict more dramatically than happens to others in the cold. This can cause the hands to turn blue and then white, and to be quite painful until they are warmed. Using mittens instead of gloves can keep the hands warmer, and hand and foot warmers can be bought to insert into gloves and put over socks.
There have been a number of studies looking at what season gout attacks were most common. One study suggested it was during the summer, and they theorized that dehydration, which is a known trigger of gout, may have been a factor. However, a recent large study that was presented at the American College of Rheumatology meeting in November showed that the peak month for gout was November. The authors thought that diet during November (Thanksgiving possibly being a factor), with more alcohol, could have influenced this.
The Arthritis Foundation put out a brochure a few years ago about changing climates to help your arthritis. They pointed out the “vacation effect”— when people with arthritis go to a place such as Arizona for vacation and the arthritis feels better, they credit the warm, dry air. Unfortunately, when the person then moves to Arizona, the arthritis often gradually comes back to its baseline. The improvement may have been more related to the relaxing effect of the vacation than to the weather.
The main message for people with arthritis facing a change in seasons is to consider what effects the weather change has had on them in the past. One key issue is to figure out how to maintain your exercise program for arthritis when the weather changes make this difficult, such as when snow makes it hard to get around. Think in advance about whether you can have access to a gym, indoor pool, or another facility where you can get some exercise when the weather outside limits your options. When you’re outside, wear enough protective clothing and consider hand and foot warmers if cold extremities are a problem for you. Think about how much and what type of exercise you need to keep your joint function at its best, and how you can make this happen even if the weather prevents your usual walks. Lastly, find ways to keep yourself moving despite the weather!
Timmermans et al: The Influence of Weather conditions on Joint Pain in Older People with Osteoarthritis: Results from the European Project on Osteoarthritis: J Rheumatol 42(10):1885-1892; October 2015
Patberg WR and Rasker JJ: Weather effects in rheumatoid arthritis: from controversy to consensus. A review. J Rheumatol 31(7): 1327-1334, July 2004.
Strusberg I et al: Influence of weather condition on rheumatic pain. J Rheumatol 29(2):335-338, February 2002
Hawley DJ et al: Seasonal symptom severity in patients with rheumatic diseases: a study of 1,424 patients. J Rheumatol 28(8):1900-1909, August 2001
Dr. Theodore Fields, Rheumatologist, specializes in the treatment of gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. Throughout his career, Dr. Fields has remained active in many professional organizations and had his work recognized numerous times. Dr. Fields holds many professional appointments, including Director of the Rheumatology Faculty Practice Plan and Co-Chairman of the Hospital for Special Surgery Web Editorial Committee.