April showers bring May flowers…and according to an old belief, they also bring a worsening of arthritis. Some people even claim they can predict rain when their joints ache. But is that true, or a myth? May is National Arthritis Awareness Month, so let’s take a look at some recent research on that topic.
“The notion that certain symptoms and weather go hand in hand has persisted since antiquity,” noted a research team from Harvard Medical School. “Hippocrates, writing in On Airs, Waters, and Places, exhorted those who wish to understand medicine to look at the changing seasons of the year and study the prevailing winds to see how the weather they bring affects health. The belief has endured over the centuries and well into the present, likely fueled by a combination of folklore and small studies that have repeatedly yielded mixed results.”
The Harvard team used some “big data” to examine whether this old belief holds up under scientific scrutiny. They looked at four years of medical records of 11 million older Americans, then compared the rate of arthritis-related medical visits with a large amount of weather data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather stations. “Did more patients seek care for back pain or joint pain when it rained or following periods of rainy weather?” they asked. “Were patients who went to the doctor for other reasons more likely to also report aching knees or backs around rainy days?”
In fact, they found no link. “No matter how we looked at the data, we didn’t see any correlation between rainfall and physician visits for joint pain or back pain,” reported Dr. Anupam Jena, who is a professor of Health Care Policy.
So why do many patients believe the weather can affect their pain? The human brain is good at finding patterns, and those beliefs can be self-fulfilling, Jena explained. If you expect your knee to hurt when it rains and it doesn’t, you forget about it, he said, but if it hurts and you blame it on the rain, it tends to stick in your mind.
“As physicians, we should be sensitive to the things our patients are telling us. Pain is pain, with or without rain,” Jena said. “But it’s important to know that, at the clinical level, joint pain does not appear to ebb and flow with the weather.”
So if the weather isn’t to blame, which factors do affect the degree of discomfort experienced by people with arthritis? Experts say an arthritis “flare”—an increase in symptoms—can be caused when a patient doesn’t take their medications as recommended, or doesn’t get enough sleep, has an infection, or is experiencing a lot of stress in their life. They might not be getting enough physical activity, or could be getting too much of the wrong type of exercise. For some types of arthritis, diet is a factor. Sometimes arthritis pain seems to come and go for unexplained reasons. A patient might be comfortable one week, and suffer an increase of pain the next. But patients have some options for lessening arthritis pain.
If you have arthritis, learn all you can about your condition. What type of arthritis do you have? Osteoarthritis? Rheumatoid arthritis? Gout? Some other type? An accurate diagnosis helps your health care providers make recommendations for treatment and lifestyle choices that can control symptoms, slow the progression of the disease, and improve your quality of life. Your doctor might recommend that you:
- Keep a symptom diary. Create a record of times when your arthritis is more troublesome, to help determine triggers.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight is hard on the joints. Experts say losing even 10 pounds often makes a difference.
- Eat the right foods. A diet that is rich in fruits, veggies, healthy proteins and healthy fats may help reduce inflammation and help us lose weight. (Again, diet should be tailored to the type of arthritis you have.)
- Quit smoking. Smoking worsens some types of arthritis, and makes it harder to follow other healthy lifestyle choices.
- Take medications as recommended. Take prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the right way, at the right time, and report any side effects.
- Get enough exercise, as recommended by your doctor. This might be a trial and error process as you learn the activities that help. A trained exercise specialist can offer guidance about activities that are easy on the joints, and help you adjust your activity level depending on your arthritis symptoms.
- Make a physical therapy appointment. Physical therapy includes both hands-on treatment and instruction in how to safely move your joints, which can give you extra confidence that your fitness routine is both effective and safe.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from Harvard Medical School
The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your arthritis and improve your quality of life.