How ‘bout that weather?

[originally published in KCN, October 2001]

One thing I’ve come to learn about Northwest weather is that it definitely is not predictable.  And turning to the T.V. weathermen for guidance is, well, not predictable.  But for some, tracking the weather patterns can be quite predictable.  As a matter of fact it comes naturally, whether they like it or not.  No Hi-Tech weather equipment.  No degree in meteorology.  Just one or more arthritic joints is all that is needed for the perfect weather station.

It’s long been known that arthritis sufferers have noticed changes in their symptoms with changes in the weather.  We doctors hear about it all the time.  It’s the reason certain groups of seniors, fondly referred to as “snow birds,” flock to warmer, dryer climates when ours takes the inevitable turn.

But the burning question that I’m often asked is:  “Why?”

It’s a very good question.  And one, that I rather recently learned, really depends on who you ask.  My educational training as a chiropractor, provided me with a sound explanation to this interesting occurrence — and one I’ll share shortly — but first you should be aware that the majority of the scientific literature isn’t sure whether this weather stuff is really true.  Oh sure, they believe the patients believe it’s true, but that’s about it.

An article out of Minneapolis Medicine stated that “science offers no proof…. Literature on the subject is sparse, conflicting, and vulnerable to bias, and further physiologic investigations are not likely to produce useful information.”  And, it went on to say, “if the phenomenon were real, cause-and effect-mechanisms might provide clues that would aid joint pain treatment.”  It did offer the patient some sympathy when it said, “for patients who believe that weather can influence their pain, the causes may be unknown, but the effect is real.”

Other articles down-played the significance weather conditions actually do play on daily arthritis symptoms stating that while they might exist, they weren’t  “clinically significant.”

But the article that wins the prize in my book came out of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study likened the belief that arthritis pain is related to the weather with one’s perception that “positive serial correlations in random sequences” exist with coin tosses, stock market prices, and basketball shots.  Psychological factors such as “selective memory” and “selective matching” were peppered into the article.   But perhaps the most telling, and really the gist of their opinion, was found in the last sentence:  “People’s beliefs about arthritis pain and the weather may tell more about the workings of the mind than of the body.”

Not all the articles were jaded, however. To be fair, their were some articles that suggested that a correlation between weather and arthritis pain did exist.  One study out of Australia found 92% of its participants perceived their symptoms to be influenced by the weather; and 48% claimed to actually be able to to predict the weather according to their symptoms.  Another study found women to be more sensitive to weather changes than men.  And it also found that while barometric pressure and temperature both tended to effect rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis pain, rain  tended only to bother osteoarthritis sufferers.

The disappointing aspect to all of these articles I reviewed, is that none of them focused on the “why.”  “Why does arthritis pain increase when the weather worsens?”  Assuming that there actually is a correlation, and that it’s not all “in our heads,” then the answer can be found by looking at the neurology of the joint.

The typical joint is full of special sensory nerve endings known as “mechanoreceptors” whose primary purpose is to monitor the position and movement of the joint and cause pain if needed.  Some mechanoreceptors are more sensitive than others.  Some of the more sensitive are located on the synovial lining and internal capsule of the joint.  This tissue surrounds the inner workings of the joint, and thus seals it  from the outside, forming what virtually is a chamber with its own atmospheric pressure.  Because the tissue that surrounds this chamber is extremely sensitive, degenerated and/or inflamed arthritic conditions in a joint, tend to push the mechanoreceptors to their limits — edging them closer to alerting the brain of a painful situation.

When the weather is “good” the pressure inside the joint is normal.  However, if the weather changes, and the barometric pressure outside drops, the relative pressure inside the joint chamber is now much higher, causing the already stressed mechanoreceptors within the synovial lining and internal capsule to crest their threshold and evoke a painful stimulus.  It’s kind of like an unopened bag of potato chips bursting when driving up into the mountains; but not as tasty.

And if that wasn’t enough, adding in a subluxation, or joint misalignment, to the mix, will only worsen the situation.  Because the pathological stretch that a subluxation will place on an arthritic joint will only heighten your weather predicting abilities, calling upon a chiropractor could be of some help.  And while treatments from a chiropractor probably won’t strip your weatherman identity, it just might make it harder to predict those lighter rain showers.  But then again, if you’re not interested,  you could always flip a coin.

sources used for this article:
Aikman.  The association between arthritis and the weather.  Int J Biometeorol. 40 (4).  1997.
Drane, et. al.  The association between external weather conditions and pain and stiffness in women with rheumatoid arthritis.  J Rheumatol.  24 (7).  1997.
Gorin, Smyth, et. al.  Rheumatoid arthritis patients show weather sensitivity in daily life, but the relationship is not clinically significant.  Pain.  81 (1-2). 1999.
Guedj and Weinberger. Effect of weather conditions on rheumatic patients. Ann Reheum Dis. 49 (3)1990.
Hearon.  Advanced Principles of Upper Extremity Adjusting.  Kevin G. Hearon, D.C., C.C.S. P.  Forks, WA.  1995.
McLain.  Mechanoreceptor endings in human cervical facet joints.  Spine.  19 (5).  1994.
Patberg, Nienhuis,  and Veringa.  Relation between meteorological factors and pain in rheumatoid arthritis in a marine climate.  J Rheumatol.  12 (4). 1985.
Sibley. Weather and arthritis symptoms.  J Rheumatol.  12(4).  1985.
Redelmeier and Tversky.  On the belief that arthritis pain is related to the weather.  Proc Natl Acad Sci         USA.  93 (7).  1996.
Roberts, et. al.  Mechanoreceptors in intervertebral discs:  morphology, distribution, and neuropeptides.  Spine.  20 (24).  1995.
Quick.  Joint pain and weather.  A critical review of the literature.  Minn Med.  80 (3).  1997.
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2 Comments on “How ‘bout that weather?”

  1. Ellen Smith Says:

    I appreciate that explanation, Dr. Lamar! My left knee and fingers always ache when the weather changes and the barometric pressure fluctuates…now I understand why.

  2. drlamar Says:

    Glad to provide it Ellen. What surprises me most is the number of “nay-sayers” that are out there when the anatomy and neurology of the joint is right there to explain it all. It is definitely not something your mind has conjured up. So what is the weekend going to be like? 🙂

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