Some people want to get away from brutal winters; for others, high humidity is the enemy. Here’s what science and arthritis patients themselves say about how weather may impact disease.
You’ve heard the old saying about how people with arthritis can tell if a storm is coming — and maybe you even feel this way yourself. But is it true that the weather can affect the state of your disease? And if so, does that mean that moving to a different area of the country could improve your arthritis symptoms?
The short answer: possibly. “Some theories state that changes in barometric pressure change the space in the joints around the cartilage, and that’s why people with arthritis have more friction in the joints and an increase in pain in cold weather,” says Rajat Bhatt, MD, a rheumatologist at Allergy and Rheumatology Specialists of Houston. “But this theory has not been proven yet.”
Low barometric pressure brings what we’d consider “bad” weather, such as rain and cold. High barometric pressure is associated with favorable weather, including clear skies and pleasant temperatures.
Patients’ Reports of a Weather-Arthritis Connection
Anecdotally, we’ve heard from many arthritis patients — with osteoarthritis and inflammatory types — who’ve gotten symptom relief when they moved. “I left the East coast eight years ago, and my arthritis is much better,” Cynthia Conley told us on Facebook. “The sunny hot days here in Texas are better than New York City and Delaware.” CreakyJoints member Pam Corley says her arthritis symptoms are also better now that she lives in the South. “I lived in Ohio my whole life, and with osteoarthritis in all my joints, I couldn’t function anymore in the cold winters,” she told us on Facebook. “I moved, by myself, to southern Alabama four years ago and weaned off my prescription meds. I’m 57 now and still have pain, but I am able to function so much better in the heat.”
But not everyone experiences the same relief, especially where humidity is a factor. “Florida makes me ache and swell up like a balloon,” Cheryl Mashburn-Lones told us. “My feet were swollen so bad yesterday I cried all day. I couldn’t walk without excruciating pain.” Cheryl Pekuri Wright told us even the desert climate of the Southwest — known for being arthritis-friendly — didn’t work for her. “I spent some time in New Mexico — everyone said a dry climate is best, but not for me,” she said. “I’ll stay in Michigan!”
Because barometric pressure is also related to a location’s altitude, it might not be only the temperature or humidity that affects arthritis symptoms, but the elevation as well. “I have RA and after graduating college I moved [from Chicago] to Colorado,” Roz Lynn Dorf said on Facebook. She credits the move with helping her get her into remission. “Illinois is lacking in sunshine, and I also think that getting away from the humidity helped.” Another arthritis patient found it helpful to live in Montana, which has a higher elevation and a semi-arid climate.
Weather and Arthritis Symptoms: What Research Shows
Scientific research has not reached any firm conclusions on the matter of weather and arthritis. “Currently the science is all over the map,” says Dr. Bhatt. This may be due to difficulties in structuring good studies, he says. “Each place is so unique; you can have a place that’s warm but still at an altitude and so has low barometric pressure, and at each place the weather fluctuates daily,” he says. “To do a trial and have everything else constant is very hard. In fact, a study on people in Finland found that they actually had increased joint pain in warmer weather, so it’s a very subjective situation.”
A recent observational study conducted by our parent organization, the Global Healthy Living Foundation and presented at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in 2018 did find a correlation between weather patterns and peoples’ self-reported symptoms, but it wasn’t very strong. More research is needed to narrow down the specific weather parameters. “Maybe the science will evolve with time,” Dr. Bhatt says.
Additional Arthritis Benefits of Different Climates
Regardless of what the science says, warmer weather does have some logistical benefits.
- No snow shoveling or slipping on ice
It’s nice not to have to worry about shoveling snow or slipping and falling on ice when your joints are fragile to begin with or you have additional fracture risk factors, such as osteoporosis.
- Easier to be active outside
Because regular exercise is recommended for every kind of arthritis, it helps to be in a place where being active year-round is easier and more comfortable.
Marcia Goodman-Blair says wintering in Florida has helped her arthritis symptoms considerably. “I live in northeastern Massachusetts, and since being diagnosed with autoimmune arthritis in 2010, I can no longer tolerate northern winters,” she shared on Facebook. “I’m retired now and very fortunate to spend four to five months in southwest Florida every winter, which helps me a lot. I’m able to walk and swim almost every day, and have much less pain and stiffness than I would living through a cold northern winter.”
“I moved from Minnesota to Miami, Florida, partially to help with my ankylosing spondylitis,” GM Garrett told us on Facebook.“My disease continued to progress despite the move, but managing it became a lot easier because of the option to go outside year-round. If I’m in pain and can’t get my full exercise routine done, at least I can go for a slow walk outside.”
But Dr. Bhatt warns that too warm a climate can also be prohibitive for exercising outside. “It depends on the situation — if it’s too hot, people will not go out as much either,” he says. “It has to be good ambient temperature where people can go out and exercise.”
- Vitamin D and mood benefits
Sunny weather may have other benefits as well. “Some sunshine will help make vitamin D, which contributes to strong bones,” Dr. Bhatt says. “Also mood: Depression and anxiety are big contributors to pain, and we do know sunshine is a relieving factor for depression and anxiety symptoms.”
Several arthritis patients told us their mood and mental state improved in sunny locales. “I moved to California from New York right before winter started, and although we had an unusual rainy season here, I was 10 times less depressed,” Sarah Kravette told us.
Should You Move to a New State to Help Your Arthritis Symptoms?
The bottom line is that no matter what others say, or even what the science says, whether or not you move to try to manage your disease should be an individual decision. “It’s a very subjective situation. There are people who feel they have increased joint pain especially in rainy and cold weather and who feel better relocating to warmer climates,” Dr. Bhatt says. “In this case the science doesn’t matter as long as they feel better. Whatever works for the patient.”
But Dr. Bhatt recommends you test out your preferred location, or try several destinations, before you make a permanent choice. “When patients ask me, I recommend they do a trial: Go on vacation, rent an Airbnb, stay there one or two months, and see if they feel any better,” he says. “Every patient is different.”
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