Fibromyalgia and the Weather

Recently, a doctor had a patient tell him she had a “break-through” in her fibromyalgia (FM) symptoms that she was VERY excited to share. Having known this patient for a long time, he was intrigued by her enthusiasm. She told her doctor that her family had never had an air conditioner before until late last fall before the winter and hadn’t used it yet until recently. She discovered that her generalized, whole body aches were significantly improved by running the AC, even when set at 79°F when the temperature outside may not have required it.

We all know that FM causes many symptoms such as relentless fatigue, muscle pain, depression, dizziness, nausea, etc. It’s also no secret that FM symptoms vary considerably between seasons, as well as with certain weather changes, not to mention temperature changes, air pressure or barometric changes, and when it rains. As far back as 1981, a study reported that a large percentage of FM patients may be more sensitive to changes in weather compared to non-FM subjects. In fact, they stated 90% of the FM patients reported weather was one of the most important factors influencing their FM symptoms. Weather changes commonly influence symptoms in patients with other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and osteoarthritis. But, the question remains, how does weather affect fibromyalgia?

There are 5 major weather factors that appear to affect FM symptoms:

  1. Temperature: Especially rapid changes in temperature and cold tend to irritate while warm temperatures are less troublesome.
  2. Barometric Pressure: This is the measure of weight (pressure) that is exerted by the air that is all around us. Sunny days create a high barometric pressure while storms result in a sudden drop. These changes can trigger muscle aches in FM patients.
  3. Humidity: This refers to the amount of water vapor present in air. Humidity is associated with headaches, stiffness, and widespread pain flare-ups in FM patients.
  4. Precipitation: This refers to any type of water that falls from the sky to the ground (rain, sleet, snow, hail) and is usually associated with a change (usually a drop) in barometric pressure. This can result in increased pain and fatigue in FM patients
  5. Wind: In general, wind usually causes a decrease in barometric pressure regardless of its force and therefore can trigger fatigue, headache, and muscle pain in FM patients.

Though a number of studies are available that support weather’s adverse effects on the FM patient, researchers still are not exactly sure why this occurs but offer several explanations for this. One has to do with our sleep cycle. It appears that changes in the sleep cycle occur at times of extreme temperature – either hot or cold and this can negatively affect the FM patient. Another explanation involves the changes in our Circadian Rhythm that normally occurs with the changes in seasons due to the amount of light our body receives, less in the winter, more in the summer causing fatigue and achiness. The third explanation is the relationship between low temperature levels and an increase in the number of “pro-inflammatory cytokines” in the body, which increases pain intensity. FM patients have reported benefits from dressing in layers, avoiding cold temperatures, and increasing the amount of light inside the house (halogen bulbs or a light box, for example—taking Vitamin D can help too!).