Despite anecdotal evidence, experts have yet to acknowledge a cause-and-effect relationship between weather changes and physical discomfort. At the same time, rheumatologists can't ignore the complaints of their patients.
Kay Clemens thinks she does a better job than the weathermen.
"A lot of people don't believe you can say it is going to rain," said the osteoarthritis patient from Athens, Ill. "I can always tell when it is going to do something outside because the aching gets really bad."
Pain sufferers long have been known to curse the cold, humidity or changes in barometric pressure, possibly explaining the phrase "feeling under the weather." The discussion dates back to Hippocrates in 400 B.C. and still has no definitive answer.
Despite anecdotal evidence, experts have yet to acknowledge a cause-and-effect relationship between weather changes and physical discomfort.
At the same time, rheumatologists can't ignore the complaints of their patients.
"Obviously, on a daily basis, I hear that their knee, or whatever, is the weather indicator," said rheumatologist Dr. Jeffery Horvath at the Springfield (Ill.) Clinic. "I hear it enough, there must be something to it."
Dr. Robert Trapp, rheumatologist at the Arthritis Center in Springfield, said most of his patients claim they can consistently sense a storm approaching as early as two to three days in advance.
"I personally believe that many of them can," Trapp said, "although when you look at scientific studies, there is a lot more controversy."
The argument for
There hasn't been much research into whether the weather affects how an arthritic person feels. And what research exists has no definitive answer.
One study had subjects in Argentina keep journals describing their symptoms, which were then compared to weather reports. The study found the people with arthritis were more affected by weather changes than the control group, but the association was not strong enough to predict weather.
One often-cited study was headed by arthritis specialist J. Hollander in 1961. Hollander built a climate chamber, where he sealed 12 arthritic patients inside and adjusted atmospheric conditions. The subjects were unaware of the changes as they occurred.
Patients reported pain with low barometric pressure and high humidity. When the barometric pressure drops, it often means rain and/or cooler weather is coming. Hollander theorized that a drop in pressure causes the already enflamed joints to swell.
Trapp explained it this way: "In this enclosed space within the joint, think of it as a balloon that is not inflated. The pressure outside of the space will theoretically allow the pressure inside the joint to increase."
The argument against
However, other studies find no connection between changes in the weather and pain, and at least one study suggests it's all in a person's head.
Dr. Amos Tversky, a Stanford University psychologist, monitored 18 patients, 17 of whom claimed their arthritis was influenced by the weather. The study tracked the patients' symptoms for 15 months and compared the data to local weather reports.
Tversky's study found no correlation between pain and weather. Instead, he attributed the relationship to the innate human tendency to look for patterns. The study is consistent with
Tversky's other work, which seeks to debunk human instinct. Tversky previously found no evidence that a basketball player with a "hot hand" cheats probability.
"People look for patterns - and find them - when they aren't really there," Trapp said.
Along the same lines, some say that if there is a connection, it could be influenced by other factors. A cold and rainy day affects mood or pain threshold. People do not get out and get the exercise needed to keep arthritis pain at bay.
If weather does affect arthritis, some people may be more sensitive to fluctuations than others. Clemens said she believes she is sensitive to those atmospheric changes and no one can convince her otherwise.
Recently, she vacationed in Arizona.
"I felt better for two and a half weeks," she said, although she would never leave her family to move to a warmer climate.
Would arthritis sufferers feel better if they all moved to Arizona?
Maybe. However, no climate is free of arthritis sufferers.
The Phoenix phone book lists plenty of rheumatologists.