Monday, September 27, 2004

Joint pain? Blame it on the rain

Maybe your knee can tell you
when it's going to storm

By Bryant Stamford / Gannett News Service

Mark Twain has often been quoted as saying: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

Not much can be done, other than to create conditions to shield us from extremes. We build homes, heat them in the winter, cool and dehumidify them in the summer.

In effect, it would appear that we have neutralized the impact of weather on our everyday lives. Or have we?

My mother has severe degenerative arthritis in her knee. She always has insisted that she can sense changes in the weather by how her knee feels - it throbs and aches when stormy weather approaches.

This is not an uncommon claim. Even so, I've always been skeptical and have viewed such claims as having more to do with the power of suggestion than with atmospheric conditions.

As my shoulder deteriorated, leading to recent surgery, I noticed shifts in how it felt from day to day. At first, I paid little attention and wrote off any increased pain to simply overworking it or, lately, the after-effects of physical therapy.

But now that I'm paying more attention, a correlation with the weather is possible. With this in mind, I've done a bit of investigating.

An interesting book, Under the Weather: How the Weather and Climate Affect Our Health by Pat Thomas (Fusion Press; $15.95), provides some clues.

Thomas reviews research conducted in the 1960s to test the connection between weather and joint discomfort.

Patients suffering from arthritis were asked to sit in a room in which the air pressure and humidity could be manipulated without their knowledge.

The patients reported no noticeable effects from atmospheric conditions until the conditions reached those similar to an approaching storm - a substantial drop in barometric pressure and increased humidity. Patients then complained of joint pain.

Was this pain for real or was it imagined? Physicians examined patients throughout these experiments and found that when stormy conditions appeared and patients complained of pain, it was because their arthritic joints were more inflamed than usual.

More research has been done that also supports the weather connection, but we still don't know the underlying reasons for feeling more pain.

Inconsistencies regarding the impact of weather on how we feel and our health in general might be attributed to differences in sensitivity among individuals.

As with measuring any characteristic, there will be a continuum ranging from those who are extremely sensitive to those who are not at all. Some will be so sensitive as to experience effects (aches, pains, mood swings, etc.) well before the weather actually changes, and major effects once the change occurs.

Such folks are in good company. They include Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus.

Recent surveys suggest that 70 percent of Americans believe that weather influences their well-being. This is particularly true for the elderly, people who are chronically ill, and women and children.

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