Ah, summer! The season of sticky popsicles, a thousand hues of green, and for me, a dramatic reduction in pain. I thrive this time of year, loving the heat, the humidity, and even getting caught in warm rainstorms. Summer heals me and I take every opportunity to find a sunny spot and “bake my bones”—yes, that’s what I call it—reveling in the sensation of the sun’s rays permeating my body (beneath a good covering of SPF 50, of course).
If I listen closely, I can hear every cell sigh contentedly with the bliss of it. And well before the weatherman announces the arrival of the first autumnal drop in temperature, those same cells begin to whine and complain with new aches and pains.
Ask anyone who lives with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other types of chronic illness, and they, too, will swear that their bodies are more reliable weather prognosticators than meteorologists with all their fancy technology. Some people flare more in the heat of summer, others during winter’s cold—but we can usually agree on a special loathing for weather changes, sure to trigger flares. From the senior with an osteoarthritis knee, to the woman with migraine and all of us with inflammatory arthritis, we know first-hand the frustration of being at the mercy of Mother Nature’s whims.
But are we actually human weathervanes? People with arthritis might feel certain that weather changes = flares, but the science does not fully support this conclusion. A 2020 review of studies in the journal Pain confirmed what other research has indicated: There seems to be some association between weather and musculoskeletal pain, but findings tend to be not statistically significant. According to the Arthritis Foundation, changes in barometric pressure can cause expansion or contraction in tissues and tendons, which can lead to arthritis pain, but overall, the scientific jury is still out on this topic.
My life is not a research study, but I do know that my pain levels are not only determined by weather. Am I in less pain at this time of year because of the heat, the positive effects of additional vitamin D from spending more time outside—shown to potentially play a role in the severity of RA symptoms—or is it because spending more time outside makes me happier so I notice the pain less? I suspect the answer is a resounding yes to all these factors.
After decades of paying attention, I do know there’s a flipside to these seasonal benefits. Changes in weather—more than actual precipitation or cold—are my nemesis. It doesn’t matter if it changes from wet to dry, from cold to hot, or vice all the versas, when the weather changes, my pain acts up.
Living with RA is a constant exercise in coping with loss of control, but you can begin to have some control over certain symptoms and triggers. You can take medication, change your diet, incorporate more rest, but no matter how much you focus—and believe me, I’ve tried—there’s no controlling the weather. So how do you deal with being a human weather app?
It starts with knowledge. As with any other trigger, try to identify what in particular makes you flare. Is it precipitation, humidity, heat, cold, or is it the change in weather that gets you? You might already have an idea of the broad strokes of the problem, but using a symptom tracker app on your phone can help you dig down into the details.
Adapting how you live your life to fit the seasons is something everybody already does. Once RA is added to the mix, you adapt again. If summer is happy time for your RA, take advantage of every moment of it. The minute it gets warm enough, I spend at least an hour outside every day. Although I’ve had to adapt this for the COVID-19 pandemic, I still make sure to get out there multiple times a week in areas where I can distance myself from others. If the humidity of summer is an inflammation trigger, this may be your season of staying inside with closed windows and the AC set to stun while you wait for cooler weather to arrive.
You don’t have to fight this battle alone. Developing a support team can be a big part of coping with weather changes. Talking to your medical team about effective pain management forms a foundation for a happier you during weather-related flares. Add technology in the form of a weather app and use it to check the likelihood of having a good week (and how often you’re right about incoming rain when the app claims only sunshine). This might not change your plans, but could be a cue to prioritize rest or bring extra pain meds when you’re going out.
And lastly, don’t forget to reach out to friends and family and talk to them about your weather woes. The location for get-togethers can change—inside a restaurant for dinner versus sweltering on a patio, say—or it can help them understand if you need more support and hugs at certain times of the year (or week).
Loss of control can be one of the hardest things about living with a chronic illness like RA, but it also teaches you that any sense of being in control of our lives is usually an illusion anyway. And that’s where you have a step up from your healthy peers. Having that first-hand knowledge and coping skills is the key to adapting to changes, be it to the weather or a major life event.