When it comes to aches and pains, grass may not be greener somewhere else

June 07, 1995|By Jane E. Brody | Jane E. Brody,New York Times News Service

Before you decide to take your arthritis to Arizona, consider these surprising new findings about the influence of weather and climate on chronic pain: Patients living in the relatively warm, dry climate of San Diego reported a greater sensitivity to changes in the weather than those who had to cope with the cold and damp conditions of Boston or Worcester, Mass.

A better bet than any of those three cities for chronic pain sufferers seeking relief from the vagaries of weather might be warm and moist Nashville. In a study of the four cities, chronic pain patients living in Nashville reported that they were least likely to be affected by changes in the weather.

The study, by Dr. Robert N. Jamison and colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, involved a questionnaire survey of 558 chronic pain patients in the four cities. The findings were published in the current issue of the journal Pain. In an interview, Dr. Jamison, a clinical psychologist, said they revealed that "weather affects pain no matter where people live.

"The findings suggest that our bodies adjust to the local climate, and when changes occur in that climate, we react to them with an increase in pain," he said.

Dr. Jamison explained: "If you spend two weeks in Florida sipping pina coladas, you may feel a lot less pain than you did shoveling snow at home in Boston. But if you move to Florida and your body gets used to that warm climate, when the temperature drops you may hurt just as much as you did when the weather changed in Boston."

Thus a spell of wet weather in normally dry San Diego might be more disruptive to pain sufferers than the year-round dampness of Nashville, whose residents become accustomed to wet conditions. Such a finding counters the common notion that warm, dry climates are best for people in pain.

The researchers conducted the four-city survey to examine more closely the long-standing belief that patients with chronic pain -- arthritis, headache, backache and the like -- are sensitive to weather changes and can often predict those changes as much as a day ahead based on an increase in pain.

The researchers sought to determine if weather-induced changes in pain sensitivity varied with climate. They especially looked at whether those who live in cold, damp climates suffer the worst weather-related effects, and what characteristics define patients who are most sensitive to weather changes.

"The real culprit may be a change in barometric pressure, since patients are most likely to report an increase in pain in advance of weather changes," Dr. Jamison said. The barometric pressure typically falls before the onset of wet weather, and, he suggested, "when the outside pressure falls, body tissues -- tendons, ligaments, muscles and bones -- may readjust by expanding to varying degrees and, in doing so, can trigger the sensitized nerves that send out pain signals."

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