A photo of the mountains and lake in Vancouver
Credit: J.G. Chayko

There’s a familiar ache in my left index finger, the kind of ache that comes when there’s a change in the air. I pick up my teacup and go to window, ignoring the twinge in my left knee and the stiffness creeping up my back. The cotton candy clouds floating in the blue sky don’t offer much in the way of a clue, but I feel it — rain is on the way.

The west coast of British Columbia is a place of natural beauty where snow-capped mountains and lush rain forests loom over the undulating waves of the Pacific Ocean. They are the bold protectors from some of the harshest weather conditions. Everyone’s heard stories about the unbearable Canadian winters, but those are almost non-existent in my harbour city of Vancouver, which boasts the mildest temperatures in Canada. Still, even this fair climate has its share of sulky moods, causing quick changes in the weather, pressure, and, ultimately, my rheumatoid arthritis.

How Weather Affects My Rheumatoid Arthritis

British Columbia has many regions that, despite being only a few hours apart, host a range of climates. There’s the dry desert heat of the Okanagan region; the long winters and short summers of the Northern region; the mountain passes and ski hills of Manning Park, where you can drive through rain, hail, snow, and sun all within 30 minutes.

A photo of the snow-covered mountains in Vancouver
Credit: J.G. Chayko

Vancouver in nestled between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is a rain forest region where spring is lush and wet, summer is warm and humid, fall is brisk and cool, and winter is misty and overcast. The weather in this region is always changing. It is often said that if you don’t like the weather there, just wait 10 minutes. It’s the only place where my umbrella and my sunglasses travel together.

Shifts in the weather can happen at any time, pitching the ocean into a frenzy — and churning the waves of inflammation in my body. When the clouds roll in on a clear day it feels as if storm clouds are rolling over my joints, activating the pain. I can almost feel the lightening crack in my body. When the weather remains stable, my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is also stable. But the sudden shift in weather patterns can cause my joints to swell in a matter of minutes.

It’s not unusual to hear people with arthritis say they can sense a rainstorm or heatwave, most likely because of the way weather can impact arthritis. Research into weather’s impact on arthritis has been limited and, in many cases, shown a weak connection, but there are signals that are hard to ignore. For example, in a 2019 study from the UK, published in the journal Nature Partner Journals, 2,658 arthritis patients tracked their symptoms and the weather every day for at least six months. Researchers found that people with arthritis experienced greater discomfort on humid and windy days, and less pain on dry days.

Thriving in a Desert

I personally thrive best in a desert-like climate. Warm temperatures and no humidity seem to put my RA to sleep. I’m less stiff in the morning and more energized during the day. I notice less swelling and pain in my joints when the weather is just so. There are some days where the desert-like weather makes me forget I have RA.

A photo of the mountains Vancouver
Credit: J.G. Chayko

I noticed this the first time I flew to Nevada in the United States. The moment I stepped off the plane and into that dry, soothing heat, something in my back shifted. The pain I always carried with me disappeared within hours. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Every year since then, my husband and I travel to the desert for a reprieve from the turbulent storms of RA. Of course, when COVID-19 prevented us from traveling internationally last year, we had to adjust. Instead of flying to the United States, we drove through our own desert haven here in B.C.

Finding a Reason

There may be limited scientific evidence, but there are enough anecdotes from people with arthritis to show that the weather can impact a person’s symptoms — we just don’t know how.

I have my own theory: Our bodies are made up of approximately 60 percent water, which lubricates the joints and helps fight on inflammation. Water can be affected by the elements of the natural world — air pressure, lunar phases, and more. So it doesn’t surprise me that swings in the weather can have an impact on the human body.  After all, if the moon can pull the tides, then why can’t it pull the fluid in our bodies?

Controlling My Stormy Joints

But just because a hot dry climate eases my arthritis symptoms doesn’t mean it has the same effect on everyone with arthritis. I know some people who say the rain gives them relief while the heat causes them to swell and flare. As anyone with RA knows, it’s a very individual disease — we may share similar symptoms, but our triggers can be different.

Weather is just one of those triggers and, unfortunately, it’s one you can’t control. All you can do is utilize the tools from your health care practitioners and your own self-care kit. Since I can’t always go to the desert to find relief, I need pay attention to my body and rest when I need to. I alternate between ice and heat therapy, using ice to reduce swelling and heat to soothe pain. Sometimes I escape to a local float spa to relieve the joints, but a hot bath will work just as well to warm the chill of a wet damp day. And as always, a pleasant distraction will get me through to the next morning.

Welcoming the Dry Warmth

Not too long ago, from the shelter of our patio overlooking beautiful Osoyoos Lake, I recalled watching a strange and haunting weather system move in across the water. A low mist swirling with dry snow crawled over the lake then dissipated into a fiery sunset. The phenomenon lasted no more than five minutes, but I felt a light aftershock in my body as the system passed through.

Spring was fighting its way into summer, and just like that little bank of cloud across the lake, my RA was shrinking into the warmth of a new season. I dream about traveling back to Santa Fe or Las Vegas again, and those days are getting closer. But for now I’m going to explore and enjoy the beauty and healing nature of our own West Coast summer.

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Dixon, WG. How the weather affects the pain of citizen scientists using a smartphone app. Nature Partner Journals. October 24, 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0180-3.