Arthritis and Weather: Everything You Need to Know

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In this article, we’re going to look at the connection between weather and arthritis.

This is something that could have a huge impact on pain levels and inflammation and I’m really excited to cover this.

We’ll start by discussing what the science has to say.

There are some fascinating studies, one in particular, that give us some really useful data here.

We’ll also talk a bit about my own testing and personal experience with weather and arthritis.

This is something I’ve been documenting in a lot of detail now for the last three years, so hopefully you’ll find this useful.

We’ll finish by looking at some practical solutions that you could potentially make use of in your own life.

These are findings that apply across the board.

So if you, or someone you love, is struggling with arthritis – and I’m talking about rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and anything in the spondyloarthritis – I hope you’ll find this useful.

Let’s dive into the science.

A great study, published in 2019, was conducted by the Versus Arthritis Centre for Epidemiology at the University of Manchester in England.

They took a group of over 13,000 UK residents who lived with chronic pain for a study called Cloudy with a Chance of Pain and monitored them for 15 months using modern consumer technology, smartphones.

This enabled them to do something quite different…

Often you undertake a study you have to have people coming into labs or self-reporting to get tested or bring you their results. You have to trust that they were taking notes at the right time and keeping track of things.

With this study, they had a special smartphone app which asked them to report how they were feeling ‘in the moment’.

The patient would log this, and because the smartphone has access to GPS and the internet, it was able to log the precise location of when that person was giving that report on their phone in the moment.

This could then be cross-referenced automatically with exactly what the weather conditions were right there and then. No ambiguity or self reporting. The app was able to track levels of humidity, heat and every possible metric you can imagine.

When the study was netted down in terms of participants who had arthritis, qualified and stuck to the programme, that initial figure of 13,000 finished at around 2,600. That’s still a large study size for something like this so these are really interesting and useful results.

Lower humidity is linked to a decrease in pain and stiffness

The first key finding was that lower humidity was linked with decreased pain and stiffness.

Humidity is the amount of water vapour in the air. Higher means more.

If you think of it a little bit like a sponge, the more water the air is holding, the more humid the air feels.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this before (maybe you even live in a region like this).

It almost feels like your skin is wet with the air; the air feels heavy.

For people with arthritis, and this is a quote from this study, they found that: “an increase in relative humidity was associated with a higher odds of a pain event.”

It went further to say that “relative humidity had the strongest association with pain.”

This is a really important finding.

A lot of people may have no awareness that weather can affect arthritic conditions.

This was the same boat I was in until relatively recently. I had some vague notion in my head that maybe warm weather was good for people with arthritis, but I’d never really looked into it. I though it was a bit of a myth or an urban legend with no real evidence to support it.

So that’s why findings like this are so helpful.

On a practical level, where would you find low or high humidity?

(Remember, we want to avoid high humidity as much as possible!)

High humidity conditions are found in regions like tropical areas and rainforests. That is at the extreme end of humidity. There is a lot of rainfall in these areas and the air is heavy with water vapour.

In addition some coastal areas are going to get a humidity bump. Anything that’s near a large body of water – an ocean, a lake or a river – can potentially increase humidity as the evaporation adds moisture to the air.

There’s more nuance with this because obviously proximity to water and humidity will also – to a large extent – be dependent on weather conditions as well.

The main culprit will be areas that are typically humid all the time, like tropical regions, and very wet rainy climates.

Higher atmospheric pressure is linked to a decrease in pain

The next finding is that higher atmospheric or barometric pressure is good for arthritis, or more positive in terms of pain levels.

I’ll use the terms atmospheric and barometric interchangeably as they’re effectively the same thing.

What does the Manchester study find specifically here?

It found that “the odds of a pain event was lower with an increase in atmospheric pressure.”

In other words higher atmospheric pressure appears to be better for people with arthritis.

So far, we’ve got low humidity and higher atmospheric pressure, being beneficial.

But what is atmospheric pressure?

The technical description is that there’s a greater weight of the air column directly above where you are located. That’s a higher atmospheric pressure.

A lower atmospheric pressure, which is what we don’t want, is when there’s less air pressing down on a particular area. This is normally caused by air rising.

The warm air rises, expands and cools, reduces its density, and that lowers the air pressure at the surface.

That’s quite a lot of jargon, so what does it mean in simple terms?

It means you want to try, as much as you can, to avoid storms and unsettled weather.

At the extreme, that’s things like hurricanes and typhoons. In the day to day it’s when the weather’s choppy, with storms or lots of rain or wind.

This is obviously something that’s quite tricky to navigate in everyday life. You can’t always predict what the weather’s going to be where you are.

But there is another metric within this which we potentially do have more control over and which is really interesting…

Typically, you’ll find higher atmospheric pressure, which again is what we want, at lower altitudes.

Lower altitudes appear to be better for those of us with arthritis.

The higher up you go, the lower the atmospheric pressure gets.

If you’ve found, for example, when you’ve been climbing or trekking you’ve had a pain increase at higher altitudes, then this could explain why.

A good rule of thumb is that if you’re roughly at sea level, you’ll likely be at a good baseline for atmospheric pressure in terms of altitude.

A final point on this, and this is an interesting wrinkle, is that cold regions can sometimes be good in this regard. Colder air is generally denser, and that leads to higher surface pressure. Think of a kind of a cold, clear winter day, for example.

This becomes interesting as we move on to the next finding.

Warmer temperatures have sometimes been associated with decreased joint pain, especially in older patients

I should make clear upfront this wasn’t something that the study we’ve been focusing on found or highlighted but it is something that has appeared in a number of other studies.

Why is warm temperature a thing?

Most of us who have joint pain, inflammatory issues or arthritis will have identified, probably fairly early on, that heat generally helps with inflammation.

Anyone who has used heat packs, heat gels, and certainly anyone who’s ever used a sauna will know that that heat can provide a great deal of relief.

But as I’ve just touched on, potentially, colder temperatures could also offer some benefits in some instances.

Certainly in my own findings I’ve found that really cold temperatures can be effective to help manage inflammation.

Cold exposure is also something that athletes, particularly elite athletes, do on a regular basis, especially if they’re dealing with an injury. As we know injuries often manifest with extreme forms of inflammation.

It’s just worth noting this and not being locked into the idea that only warm weather is going to beneficial or non harmful.

The study that we’ve been focusing on, Cloudy with a Chance of Pain, found: “temperature did not have a significant association with pain” and remember this is a decent sized study.

Another study from 2014 (and this one only looked at patients with hip osteoarthritis) of 222 patients did find a positive correlation between warm weather and pain relief.

Another study of 200 patients from 2007 also found warm weather meant less inflammation.

What’s clear here is that this needs to be studied further.

Positive outcomes in warm weather could be due to a whole range of different factors.

Something we know for certain is that stress a massive player within chronic pain and inflammation and arthritis and a whole range of conditions. It’s possible that if people are enjoying warmer weather, they may be less stressed.

An increase in vitamin D levels from the sun will also have a beneficial outcome. We know people with arthritis often have insufficient levels of vitamin D.

So there might be a few variables here to dive into for future studies.

The last key finding we have is with regards to wind speed.

Higher wind speed lead to increased pain levels for people with arthritis

This is an interesting one.

Higher winds are something that can cause fluctuations in atmospheric pressure so potentially what we’re talking about one of the same variables as before.

Remember, we want high atmospheric pressure. Less stormy, less choppy, less unpredictable, less windy weather.

In terms of giving us simple practical ways of understanding weather and arthritis, wind speed is useful because it’s simple to understand.

You can literally feel it. and it’s something that’s talked about it in the weather forecasts.

Less wind appears to be better for people with arthritis.

In terms of the overall findings of the Cloudy With a Chance of Pain study, they give us a nice sum-up paragraph.

They found that “the overall effect sizes, while statistically significant, were modest. For example, the worst combination of weather variables would increase the odds of a pain event by just over 20% compared to an average day. Nonetheless, such an increased risk may be meaningful to people living with chronic pain.”

I wanted to highlight that finding. It feels like they’re playing down the effect that weather can have but I think a 20% difference is unbelievably meaningful to someone with chronic pain.

If your pain levels are already on the edge, that extra 20% can mean that it’s extraordinarily painful to get out of the chair, or to get out of bed. It can make walking 20% more difficult or painful. That means a lot.

It might mean that you don’t do the one activity that is actually going to relieve your pain because that initial hurdle is too high.

If this study had found there was just a 10% difference on the worst combination of weather variables, I still think that would have been very meaningful.

It’s an amazing study and I’m very grateful to the people who did this. I hope they do future arthritis studies as well.

This makes a good segue into my own findings.

What’s exciting is that virtually everything this study and some of the other studies have found correlate with my own findings.

I want to make clear here that I didn’t know and hadn’t researched a lot of this data prior to recording my own findings.

I’ve been keeping diary entries and a detailed spreadsheet for the last three years (as well as some entries prior to that before I even knew I had ankylosing spondylitis).

Let’s kick off talking about a couple of light bulb moments. These were recently, both within the last two years.

The first one was when my partner and I visited Namibia. Vast swathes of the country sit in the ultimate desert-like conditions.

If we look at the things that the studies are telling us, what you ideally want is very low humidity, high barometric pressure (so not too stormy, not too windy and low altitude) and warm weather is probably going to be pretty good too.

Vast areas of Namibia tick every single box. It has the oldest desert in the world, the Namib Desert, and there are several areas which are sea level, or just above.

I found during this holiday, my pain levels were unbelievably low. I found a new level of feeling good that I hadn’t felt for years, or even decades.

I felt even less stiff than usual. I hadn’t actually realised I was feeling stiff until I got there and settled in.

Suddenly I felt more flexible and had more energy. It felt like I didn’t have ankylosing spondylitis or arthritis.

It’s hard to put into words, but imagine someone had given you magical nitro boost.

It can be difficult at times to know what your baseline levels of ‘normal’ if you’ve had a progressive condition for 10, 20, 30 years. Knowing what’s considered normal can be difficult when the comparison is so far away.

After our trip to Namibia, I got home and fell back into my London baseline. Not bad but nothing like as good.

I was still managing to stay pain-free, but I definitely found that the stiffness levels sometimes increased and my symptoms were slightly on edge.

More recently I spent some time in Argentina. Argentina is a huge country with lots of different regions, climates and weather patterns.

For the first part of our trip we were in Buenos Aires. It was humid, hot and I kept getting bitten by mosquitoes.

Buenos Aires is an amazing place, and I absolutely loved it, but my symptoms were not improving over London.

While I was pretty much pain-free, I had really dry skin problems and I still felt quite stiff. I was certainly flare-free but wasn’t feeling my absolute best.

Then we travelled over to Mendoza.

My symptoms cleared up almost overnight and I felt absolutely amazing. I think Mendoza is the best I’ve ever felt, health-wise.

The AS symptoms were totally invisible.

I felt like a completely normal person, beyond normal even.

This really was next level and beyond what I realised was possible.

And that’s the thing that I find really exciting about this…

My own experiences show confirm when I’m in the perfect environment (or what appears to be the perfect environment in terms of low humidity and low altitude!) I feel even better.

I had no idea about humidity, altitude and atmospheric pressure could affect conditions like arthritis and there was no cognitive bias that I’m aware of.

It was only afterwards when I was doing my recent research into weather and arthritis that I thought to cross-reference whether these places (where I had felt so incredible) ticked any of the boxes around atmospheric pressure and humidity.

Not only do they tick the boxes, they are at the extreme end of exactly what you do want if you’re someone with arthritis.

Mendoza is something like 700 metres above sea level and very low humidity. It’s effectively a desert.

It doesn’t look like a desert because of the river and the way they’ve irrigated, but it has the perfect conditions. The same goes for much of Namibia.

I just want to contrast this with another interesting experience I had.

Several years ago I visited Tanzania with my partner before I knew I had ankylosing spondylitis. At the time I was managing the ‘mystery pain’ through painkillers.

We’d gone to climb Kilimanjaro and it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but also one of the worst. I felt awful.

The higher we got (and Kilimanjaro is something like 5,800 metres) the worse I got. My heart rate was off the charts, I was feeling faint, I had migraines. I had all of the things that someone without arthritis might have in terms of quite extreme sickness, but it seemed to be several levels above what other people were having.

Bear in mind I was also having things in my diet which were not ‘compliant’ in my current pain free diet. At the time I didn’t know that diet could affect my mystery ailment and I felt absolutely awful.

I did make it to the top but was pretty much like a zombie and lurched between feelings of euphoria, because it was so beautiful, and feeling like I wanted to catapulted off the mountain.

I now know in retrospect that the altitude would have had a massive effect. And not just the altitude. As you climb down, you go through vast areas of humid rainforest.

It effectively had all of the things that would be unhelpful for someone with arthritis.

I spoke to someone who works in nutrition recently and they told me they had a patient whose ankylosing spondylitis triggered (or only became apparent) after climbing Kilimanjaro.

That is an extraordinary finding and is further anecdata that supports the idea that high altitude is something people with ankylosing spondylitis or arthritis should be careful around.

My ankylosing spondylitis had been around a long time before my climb, so I don’t feel it triggered my AS, but it certainly started firing up a lot of symptoms during that period. The correlation is absolutely clear as far as I can see.

Sticking with this experience the day after we drove for 6 hours to a place called Lake Natron. This is area is just 600 metres above sea level and is very dry and low humidity. It really was like a desert.

I have diary entries from this time where I talk about how good I felt here.

I definitely would have seen some benefit from spending time at high altitude and then descending (because you get a bump because of the red blood cell count and the white blood cell count shifting over) but I do also think that the lack of humidity and lower altitude would have helped too.

Back in London I track pain variables and environmental conditions in a spreadsheet. This includes marking down what the weather conditions are on a specific day. I track everything. Pain levels, what I’ve eaten, all sorts of different things. Was it hot? Was it raining? Was it stormy? That kind of thing.

I’ve frequently found that rainy weather or a stark change in weather can have a really big impact on my pain levels.

One example, and again I took this from a diary entry, was when I was lying in bed in the morning feeling great.

I had no pain levels, no sensation of stiffness, nothing.

Then suddenly I felt a stiffness rising up my spine and a sensation in my left sacroiliac joint.

I was baffled, because its rare to go from pain free to feeling such intense symptoms in such a short space of time when completely stationary. Normally it triggers when moving from one state to another.

And then two minutes later it happened…

It started pouring with rain. It was like a switch had been flipped.

There had been no indication that this would happen. The skies were clear blue when I was looking at them our the window just moment before. I couldn’t believe it.

I had a similar stark finding like this several months later.

I started out from a point of no pain and no stiffness but then there was a sudden dramatic shift in the weather and everything changed.

It went from being still and sunny(ish!) to pouring with rain in an instant.

Within minutes, I was feeling the AS sensations flooding my spine. And while I didn’t go into flare my left sacroiliac joint shifted into low level pain.

It’s really interesting to note that these positive and negatives findings don’t just occur at the extreme end of the scale… you don’t have to be in a desert or up a mountain, they can happen in any environment where there are weather shifts.

So what can we do to try and mitigate the effect of weather on pain levels, for arthritis?

Be aware of seasonal changes

If you’re noticing an increase in pain levels and there just doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, think about whether it could be the weather outside.

Is spring coming? Is it changing season? Is there going to be more rain than normal? Is there a storm coming?

Just knowing this can just help.

It can help knowing that you’re not going mad, that there’s not some strange thing happening.

It also gives you a chance to try and do what you can to put things in place.

There are a few things you can do that might help…

Get an air purifier (HEPA filter)

I’ve got something called a HEPA filter which is a standard of filter used in air purifiers.

You can buy these relatively inexpensively online on places like Amazon. I’m not going to recommend a particular brand because they pretty much all do the same thing.

The main thing you want to know is that it’s a HEPA one.

They helps remove dust and allergens and other things that you can find in the air. This is something that can often be heightened or effected by seasonal and atmospheric changes.

A lot of people with arthritis, and certainly with ankylosing spondylitis or other autoimmune conditions, struggle with things like skin conditions, sinus problems, allergies and more.

Having one of these filters, especially in the room that you sleep in, can make a massive difference.

It’s made a huge difference to me and everyone I’ve recommended it to to date and I hope it will make a difference to you.

I’ve had people who don’t have AS come to me and say that one of these filters has “changed my life” and so if you’re having sinuses issues I would look into that if you can, especially if you live in a city.

Get a dehumidifier to regulate air moisture content

The next one is a dehumidifier.

If you live in a humid environment, you can buy a machine called a dehumidifiers.

You plug them in and they literally suck out excess moisture from the air. This will keep the air in a particular room that you keep it in to a certain level (which you can set).

What air moisture content is ideal?

There’s no exact number but somewhere in the region of 40% is a good guide.

If the moisture content is 50% – 70%+ then that could be having an impact on your joints.

A device like this allows you to control your immediate environment.

Obviously it can’t help you when you’re outside, but if you’re working in a room for long extended periods of time, using a device like this could be helpful for your arthritis and pain levels.

Heat pads, gels and hot baths

The next thing is to have an emergency back up of heat pads and heat gels. A hot bath can also do wonders.

These are all really helpful and are small interventions most of us will have access to.

You can get great, low-cost electric heat pads online that are small and portable. You simply plug them in and apply them to the area on your back.

Don’t forget cold exposure too!

I’ve talked about this on Gut Heroes many times before.

Just play around with these different things and see what works well for you.

Loose, flexible, breathable clothing on humid days

the next one is just clothing.

If it’s hot, humid weather try to wear loose, breathable fabrics.

You want clothes that aren’t too constrictive. Really stiff jeans probably are probably going to make you feel worse. Don’t have too many things in your pockets. Have something that’s going to make it really easy to move around. Help your joints out!

If you know, in advance, that the weather’s going to be stormy or changeable, or if you know the weather’s going to be humid, wear flexible, loose clothing that you feel comfortable in.

Be aware of altitude (try to stay low!)

Finally, be aware of the altitude and be careful if you’re travelling into high-altitude regions.

If you are doing a climb try to do it slowly. Go higher over a slower period of time. That will really help you out. Give your body time to adjust.

Visit dry places

If you’re fortunate enough, try and spend some time in hot, dry places and see how it effects your arthritis.

For example, if you live in America you could visit Arizona or New Mexico.

If you live in Australia, there are places like Alice Springs, which is amazing in terms of both humidity and atmospheric pressure.

If you’re in South America, there’s the Atacama Desert and Patagonia.

In Europe, there are places like the South of Spain and Portugal and parts of the Mediterranean.

There are tons and tons of wonderful, beautiful places to explore.

I hope you found this helpful.

I know there’s a lot to take in here.

The key thing to remember is this:

The findings shows that you want

✔️ Low humidity
✔️ Low altitude
✔️ High atmospheric pressure (low wind, consistent weather)
✔️ Warm weather (but also don’t panic about cold weather as the correlations aren’t quite as clear)

Try to avoid places that are too windy, too stormy or too wet.

I know that’s going to be impossible for many of us (I know it’s impossible for me at the moment!). It’s just something to bear in mind in understanding how your environment can affect your arthritis.

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