People who deal with the pain of inflammatory diseases or chronic pain conditions react differently to weather. Cold, damp conditions affect some people, while others feel their worst on hot, humid days.
With summer upon us, there is good news: most people who suffer with pain from inflammatory diseases feel their symptoms ease as the gentle summertime breezes roll in.
One theory for this trend holds that cold weather makes these people feel stiffer, says Kelly Weselman, MD, a rheumatologist from Smyrna, Georgia. She adds that another reason could be people don’t push themselves as hard on the exercise front during cold winter months, which leads to more joint pain due to inactivity.
For other patients, it’s something else entirely.
“Most recently, what we have found it is the change of weather [what occurs prior to a thunderstorm or snowstorm, for example] that causes chronic pain patients to have an increase in their symptoms more than it is the weather itself,” explains John Pappas, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, Rochester Hills, Michigan.
Low pressure is generally associated with cloudy, rainy or snowy weather, while high pressure is most often linked to nice weather.
Joints are comprised of tendons and synovial fluid, which reduces friction. A decrease in air pressure associated with an impending storm increases joint spaces, allowing tendons, ligaments, and synovial fluid to expand, and it’s that expansion that causes pain, Pappas says.
The theory also holds that baroreceptors (receptors that detect changes in blood pressure) in joints become more activated and sensitized upon barometric changes in the environment, he explains.
While scientific research has not reached a consensus on a possible link between storm fronts and pain, Weselman says, “I will tell you the consensus among patients is that it definitely exists.”
For those people who do feel worse in summer, the heat may prevent them from exercising, which can make joints stiffer from inactivity, Pappas says.
“A lot of patients with chronic pain have a decreased ability to kind of regulate their body temperature as well,” notes Pappas, “and that causes people to be uncomfortable.” When you are too hot, that has “emotional overlays,” he says, like stress, which can even manifest in muscle spasms.
When it comes to the weather, how much do you know about its impact on pain? Take the following quiz to learn more.
1. Exposure to sunlight can lead to lupus or dermatomyositis flares.
True or False
3. People with inflammatory and non-inflammatory joint diseases should take a break
from exercising during the summer.
True or False
4. Dehydration can worsen joint pain in summer.
True or False
5. Which of the following is NOT something you can do in summer to avoid feeling worse if you have pain?
A. Taking cold showers
B. Taking a daily aspirin
C. Putting your feet in a cold bath
D. Using fans
1. True. Sunlight is a known trigger for lupus and dermatomyositis. Pappas notes that the sun can worsen the condition by altering DNA and increasing inflammation. Many people with an autoimmune disorder also have autonomic nervous system dysfunction and inflammation that “can trigger autonomic symptoms, which include a nauseated feeling and just kind of a generalized feeling of unwellness,” he says.
People with these conditions need to protect themselves from the sun by wearing sunscreen — at least on their forearms and faces — every day, Weselman stresses. “Just walking across a parking lot is enough to exacerbate the disease,” she underscores. Also try to cover up as much as possible, she says. Tinted windows on cars help, but some sunlight can still penetrate glass.
2. A. There is evidence that exposure to sunlight actually improves the skin of those with psoriasis, Weselman says. Most people with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis note they feel better in warm weather, too, but no research backs that up, she says.
3. False. It is important that people continue a regular exercise regimen in the summertime, Weselman says. Exercise improves joint function and muscle conditioning, which helps protect the joint. Working out also helps maintain one’s ideal body weight, which protects the joints and improves one’s mental health, she notes.
If you are exercising outside in summertime, make sure to stay hydrated and take breaks. “And that goes for anyone,” not just those who have an autoimmune disease or chronic pain condition, Weselman says.
If it’s too hot to exercise outdoors, find an indoor environment for your workout. That might include walking at a mall or hitting the gym for a bout on the treadmill, Weselman says.
4. True. Dehydration could cause increased pain in those with autoimmune or joint diseases. Water loss in the cartilage, which lines the joints, causes it to become less of a cushion. This results in bone rubbing against bone, triggering inflammation in an already-inflamed joint, which leads to increased pressure and pain, Pappas explains. Try drinking eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated, he suggests. And keep an eye out for signs of dehydration, Pappas says, which include lightheadedness, increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, headache, and dry skin.
5. B. Taking a daily aspirin. If you have an autoimmune or chronic pain condition, taking a daily aspirin will do nothing to help. However, taking steps to cool yourself off such as putting your feet in a cold bath or taking a cold shower will help to relieve pain, Pappas says. Wearing sunscreen as well as loose fitting, light-colored clothing will likely help. Consider applying a cooling mint cream to your skin, Pappas says, although he notes that staying hydrated is probably the most important thing you can do.