New research indicates links between weather and arthritis pain

Someone using the cloudy smartphone app.

Many people living with arthritis have told us that they experience a change in their symptoms due to the weather. We know that everyone’s experience of arthritis is different and that for some people, weather and temperature will have the opposite effect on their pain levels, than it does for another person.

Research published today by Manchester University and funded by us, indicates that people with long-term health conditions can be up to 20 per cent more likely to suffer from pain on days that are humid and windy with low atmospheric pressure.

The effect of weather on arthritis

The Cloudy with a Chance of Pain study, led by consultant rheumatologist Professor Will Dixon is the world’s first smartphone-based study to investigate how weather affects long-term health conditions including arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Thousands of people with differing health conditions across the UK, from Orkney to the Isles of Scilly, took part in the study over 15 months. Predominantly, participants were people living with arthritis.

Participants were asked to record their daily symptoms and other factors that affected their pain levels (such as how well they have slept or how much exercise they have done) with an app on their smartphones, while GPS in their phones provided accurate weather reporting.

A sample of 2,658 people who recorded their experiences on most days for six months or more showed that people experienced greater discomfort on humid and windy days, whereas dry days were least likely to be painful.

What does this mean for people with arthritis?

We spoke to some of the people who took part in the study to find out what this research means to them.

Nora Boswell, 70, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis five years ago. She tells us why she decided to take part in the study and how she’s now using the findings to help her plan her days and manage her symptoms.

She begins, “I have knee arthritis and multiple aches and pains but couldn’t really pin down what made them worse and the thought of continued deterioration was daunting.”

Nora decided to take part in the Cloudy study as she thought it was an interesting and much more in-depth way of researching her causes of pain.

She found the Cloudy app easy to use and was impressed by the broad spectrum of influences it was able to track, saying “it helped me to think properly about my day to day life.”

The results helped her to discover that inactivity raises her pain levels and on the dull, damp and grey days, she finds it difficult to stay motivated. Nora says, “forewarning of such weather will ensure I set strategies in place to keep myself active and, I hope, alleviate the effect of the weather to some extent.”

“I will definitely use the findings to help plan my days and manage my symptoms”

Nora also finds that exercise lowers her pain levels. “This made me think more about how to help myself. For example, on long car journeys, I have devised an ‘in-car-work-out’ doing leg, arm, neck and body exercises to keep my muscles from stiffening up but keeping the movements minimal so as to not distracting the driver.”

Janet Norris, 80, has lived with osteoarthritis for half of her life. She suffers with pain in most of her joints and says her symptoms are worse when the weather is hot and dry.

Despite having both hips replaced and one knee replacement, Janet still relies on painkillers every day to manage the pain.

“My symptoms are worse at night, particularly when I lay down on the bed,” she says, “I often spend half the night sleeping in my rise and recline chair because I can’t cope with the pain.”

Janet has been determined to find ways to manage her pain and has regular appointments with an osteopath and from time to time treats herself to massages. Although she finds these alternative treatments helpful, she says “nothing can cure the condition.”

Arthritis has stolen her ability to do the things she loves. “Sadly, I can no longer go ballroom or line dancing, as the movements involved tend to put a lot of pressure on my joints.” Despite this, Janet has found other ways to stay active and aims to perform machine assisted exercises at the gym three times a week.

Janet was keen to take part in the study and saw it as an opportunity to potentially understand why her symptoms were worse in hot, dry weather conditions.

“I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t imagining my symptoms. After recording how I felt each day, I could look back over previous weeks and months to see how the weather had affected my joints. If I know it’s going to be hot, I tend to avoid going outside and try to keep cool.

“Pain is my legacy. I saw my grandmother suffering and am frightened I may end up experiencing the same. But although pain is my environment, I am able to control it to some extent and therefore feel more in control of my arthritis.”

Carolyn Gamble who has ankylosing spondylitis, says:

“So many people live with chronic pain, affecting their work, family life and their mental health. Even when we’ve followed the best pain management advice, we often still experience daily pain.

Having taken part in the study, she adds, “knowing how the weather impacts on our pain can enable us to accept that the pain is out of our control, it is not something we have done or could have done differently in our own self-management.”

Cloudy with a chance of Pain

A look to the future and developing new treatments

Professor Will Dixon, who led the study, explains the results could be important for patients in the future for two reasons, “Given we can forecast the weather, it may be possible to develop a pain forecast knowing the relationship between weather and pain.”

This would allow people who suffer from chronic pain to plan their activities, completing more onerous tasks on days predicted to have lower levels of pain.

He added, “It will also give scientists who are interested in understanding the mechanisms of pain much needed data that might ultimately open the door to new treatments.”

Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research at Versus Arthritis, comments, “We know that of the 10 million people in the UK with arthritis, over half experience life-altering pain every day. But our healthcare system is simply not geared up to effectively help people with arthritis with their number one concern.

“Supporting effective ways of self-managing pain can make all the difference for people with arthritis, helping them to get and stay in work, to be full members of the community and simply to belong.

“Will Dixon and his team and their collaborators have shown a remarkable spirit of innovation, pushing new boundaries to bring people with arthritis into research. This research will help us understand the bigger picture of the complexity of pain caused by arthritis and how people with the condition can take control of it.”

It’s important to listen to your individual needs and find self-management techniques that work for you. Find out more about our research.

The published Cloudy paper is available to view here.

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