Woody Allen’s 1970 movie ‘Sleeper’ introduced its audience to a fictional, futuristic device called the Orgasmatron. This remarkeable invention was capable of inducing physiological changes (of a pleasurable kind) in those placed within it. I sometimes wonder how much Woody Allen’s contraption was influenced by a device with a similar name from the early 1960’s in which the earliest scientific experiments on the effects of weather on arthritis symptoms were performed.
The Climatron, as it was referred to in media reports of the time, was used by Professor Joseph Hollander, a Philadelphia based rheumatologist to determine the effects of the weather elements on the symptoms of arthritis patients. The device was basically a hotel room sized chamber (with room service) which was designed to comfortably house two patients for periods of two to four weeks. Using a system of valves and dials, it was possible to adjust the temperature, humidity, rate of air flow, barometric pressure within the chamber.
In his experiments, a small group of largely ‘weather sensitive’ arthritis patients, were recruited to come and stay in the Climatron. A number of times a day they completed a diary documenting various aspects of their health including assessments relating to their joint symptoms. They were also examined by a doctor and had their joints assessed. None of the subjects were aware that the main focus of the research was their joint symptoms and were not informed about changes being made to the weather variables within the chamber.
When individual weather variables were adjusted in the Climatron, none of the subjects noted any difference in their joint symptoms. However when an attempt to reproduce the weather conditions of imminent stormy weather (simultaneous increase of humidity and reduction in atmospheric pressure) the effect on symptom worsening was significant in 7/8 of the rheumatoid patients and in 4/4 of the osteoarthritis patients. When this experiment was completed a number of times, those who noted a worsening did so about 3/4 of the time.
This was one of the first scientific attempts to correlate arthritis symptoms and the weather. Whereas the results are tantalizing, its hard, in view of the small numbers of patients studied, to draw any firm conclusions.
Arguments for there being a link
The strongest suggestion that arthritis symptoms are affected by weather is from patient surveys. About 2/3 patients in some studies state that their pain is worsened by certain weather changes. Some report how their joints help them predict the imminent arrival of wet weather, some note a dramatic improvement in their pain while on holidays in the sun (only to deteriorate on their arrival home ) and some even notice a worsening of their symptoms during heat waves. Whereas surveys are interesting, they don’t necessarily prove the link.
However, there are also some semi-plausable mechanisms as to how weather might affect joint symptoms; We know that joints contain pressure receptors (baro-receptors) for example. Couldn’t changes in atmospheric pressure therefore be detected within joints ? The problem is that the sorts of barometric pressure changes seen with weather fluctuations are small and only of the sort of magnitude that might be experienced going up and down in a lift or on an airplane journey. It is also true that the physical properties of tendons and cartilage can be altered by temperature changes but again, this has only been shown in laboratory experiments using extremes of temperature not usually seen in the environment . There’s even some evidence that levels of inflammatory proteins (cytokines) have been shown to decrease in patients undergoing hot spa therapy with inflammatory arthritis and of course heat (or cold) applied directly to joints also seems to help some patients too.
What’s surprising therefore is how prospective scientific studies over the years have failed to show a consistent relationship between various weather variables and arthritis symptoms.
This is at least partly due to the fact that these studies are difficult to do. If the weather were a new drug and researchers were trying to determine its effectiveness in the treatment of arthritis, we would be obliged to ‘blind’ both the patients AND their assessors to their weather treatment (a wet day, dry day etc). Its hard to be ‘blind’ to the weather. Unless you spend all of your time indoors – but then you are not being exposed to the weather changes (other than barometric pressure) either. People also wear clothes most of the time, which alter the humidity and temperature around joints and which could ‘blunt’ any effect that external factors might have.
Other investigators point to the difficult confounding role of psychological factors. Where someone with arthritis holds a belief, for example, that damp cold weather worsens their symptoms, they are psychologically more likely to place emphasis on information that reinforces this idea. They might be more likely therefore to remember those days where their joints were bad AND where the weather was damp and cold but not place emphasis on days where the weather was damp and cold and their joints were good. It has also been suggested that bad weather causes patients to feel depressed or to become inactive – both factors which have been shown to worsen pain.
What’s the bottom line:
Although the data is confusing, I tend to believe my patients when they tell me there joints are effected by the weather. This is true for some patients but not for all.
In my opinion, and despite and firm to data to back it up, I believe the following;
1. That arthritis is not caused by cold or damp weather. There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case.
2. Where weather has an effect on arthritis, it is solely on the symptoms of the disease and has no effect on disease progression or structural damage.
3. The effect of weather on arthritis symptoms varies from patient; as a rule I would have said that most patients prefer dry warm weather to cold damp weather. Patients with poorly controlled rheumatoid arthritis can occasionally flare when its very hot.
4. The better controlled a patients disease, the less they will notice fluctuations with weather changes. This is particularly true of patients with inflammatory arthritis (eg rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis).
5. Emigrating for a better life with your arthritis is probably not a good idea. If an improvement is noted on moving to another country it is quite often temporary. Uprooting yourself from the support network of your family and friends isn’t a good idea and then there’s the stress of moving to another culture, negotiating another health system etc.
6. As with all things that you can’t control its probably better not to stress about it too much. You can’t control the weather…