Does cold weather really impact arthritis?

When temperatures dip, discomfort among arthritis patients seems to rise. With so many diagnosed with the inflammatory condition, Dr. Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, an immunologist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of rheumatology at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, wants to help others understand this phenomenon.

A person seen from the waist. They are tightly gripping their own wrist.Is there any merit to the claim that cold weather exacerbates symptoms of arthritis?

Anecdotally, many of my patients who have arthritis have told me that different weather seems to make their joints better or worse. I would not say that it goes in one direction or another.

Having said this, there is literature documenting what others have found when looking at this question systematically:

In a small randomized controlled clinical trial of 64 patients with inflammatory arthritis (including rheumatoid arthritis and other similar kinds of arthritis) by Rekkaa Nilssen et al in the Journal of Rehab Medicine (2020), those who did rehabilitation in a warmer climate had better functional outcomes at three, six, and 12 months, compared to their usual-care counterparts, suggesting that warmer weather is associated with better function in those with inflammatory arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis.

In an observational study by Desheng Zhao et al in BMC Public Health (2022), admissions to the hospital for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis based on ambient weather were reviewed. They found that a decrease in temperature was associated with rheumatoid arthritis related admissions while this was not the case in patients with osteoarthritis.

A case-crossover study of osteoarthritis by McAlindon et al in American Journal of Medicine (2007) of 200 participants with osteoarthritis found that the greater the increase in barometric pressure the day prior to the assessment of pain, the greater increase in pain. The study also found that lower ambient temperatures were associated with greater magnitudes of contemporary pain. The authors of this study cautioned that lower temperatures might encourage people to do activities indoors, which might then predispose them to greater pain. This possibility could not be formally tested in the study reported.

Based on the research available, it seems to depend on the type of arthritis, and I would say that the findings have not been entirely consistent. It’s hard to know how much influence weather has on overall outcomes in arthritis.

What about patients who can “tell you what weather the future has in store?”

Anecdotally, my patients say that their joints can predict the weather. They know when it’s going to rain or when a cold front is coming in. But the data is less clear that this is truly the case though there is evidence that there might be some influence of weather on joint symptoms. There has not been any data showing that it changes long term outcomes.

What are some general strategies a person can do to soothe arthritis symptoms?

There have been many studies that show that topical heat or cold can be beneficial in the short term, so I advise my patients to use whichever one they prefer – heating pad or a cold pack. These are non-pharmacologic treatments that can help to reduce pain. I view that as a win in general.

For longer-term solutions, it is best for you to find a good rheumatologist to help manage your specific kind of arthritis.

By Aaron Nieto

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