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Arthritis Pain and Stormy Weather

By Vickie Frantz, Staff Writer
May 17, 2012; 7:15 AM ET
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The clouds are building and you awaken to sore, aching hands. Your arthritis is flaring up, but is the weather to blame?

A study done by Robert Newlin Jamison, Ph.D, Professor at the Harvard Medical School and chief psychologist at the Pain Management Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Chestnut Hill, Mass., focused on patients with chronic pain. A survey asked chronic pain sufferers from Nashville, Tenn., San Diego, Calif., and Boston and Worcester, Mass., if they feel an increase in pain when the weather changes.

"In a study done on changes in weather and pain, 67.9 percent of the people surveyed responded that they were sure changes in the weather had an effect on their pain. Most of the patients reported that they can feel a change in their pain before rain or cold weather occur," Jamison said.

The culprit that may be responsible for increased pain is not snow, cold or rain. Actually, a change in barometric pressure may be to blame.

Barometric pressure (atmospheric pressure) is the pressure exerted by the weight of the atmosphere at any given point. As a storm system develops, the barometric pressure begins to drop.

"The storm strengthens and the wind field increases. As this happens, clouds develop, leading to more precipitation," said Meteorologist Brian Edwards. Facebook fan Howard Nelson Lute wrote, "My wife is sensitive to barometric pressure in her arthritus joints...she's good on BOTH up and down trends so the passing of a front gets her attention."

Fan Sara Graham commented saying, "It's the barometric pressure. I have fibromyalgia, and that's a big trigger for a flare up. It causes a lot of pain and fatigue.""

Jamison compared the effects of barometric pressure on the human body to a balloon. "When a balloon is inflated, it has the maximum inside and outside pressure. High barometric pressure that pushes against the body from the outside keeps tissues from expanding."

As the barometric pressure falls, tissues in the body may expand. As the tissues expand, they put more pressure on nerves that control pain signals.

"It doesn't take much expansion or contraction of tissue to affect a pain trigger," Jamison said.

Moving to a drier climate would not be much help. The human body quickly adapts to the barometric pressure of whatever area it is in. Since only a small pressure change can trigger pain, patients who lived in drier climates also reported feeling more pain with weather changes.


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