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Is weather to blame for our aches and pains?

I don't need a weather report or sophisticated radar to tell me that thunderstorms are on the way. My head tells me long before the first drop of rain falls.

Approaching storms have triggered my migraine headaches for more than 20 years. That made me wonder what other health conditions could be worsened by weather. We know that spending too much time in the sun can lead to sunburn and skin cancer, and that hot weather can cause varying degrees of heat illness and severe cold can lead to frostbite and hypothermia.

But what else can we blame on weather? And what long-held beliefs are simply myths? I asked some local experts to weigh in on the subject, to find out if you really can feel "under the weather."

Arthritis: Turns out your grandmother was right. You really can feel weather changes in your joints. "I hear it from nearly every patient," says Dr. John Carter, chief of rheumatology at USF Health. Carter says it has to do with changes in barometric pressure and too many white blood cells in patients' joints. "When barometric pressure drops, white blood cells swell up and cause pain." Debra Miller, 45, of Tampa says when a big storm approaches, she aches from head to toe, and her joints swell visibly and become red and hot to the touch. "I feel like a truck hit me," she says. There's not a lot of scientific data on the subject, but Carter believes these patients, who seem to have a barometer in their body.

Lupus: Also in the arthritis family, it's an autoimmune disease that tells the immune system to attack its own body, instead of foreign invaders. Those who have it wear long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, even gloves outside on sunny days. Sunlight's ultraviolet rays can trigger painful inflammation of the skin, joints and tissue around the heart, kidneys and lungs. Extreme temperature swings can also cause poor circulation and pain in the fingers and toes.

Asthma: This is a chronic disease in which the airways become inflamed and narrow, making breathing difficult. Cold air, dry air and drastic changes in temperature may worsen symptoms such as wheezing. "Ask 1,000 asthmatics if weather affects their asthma, and they'll all say yes," says Dr. Richard Lockey, director of asthma and immunology at USF Health. Though air temperature is a factor for some people, Lockey says, there's no good data to support the belief that storms and extreme weather events can trigger asthma. "It's really the debris in the air; pollution, red tide, pollen, mold and smoke that's the problem," he says.

Depression: You've heard of cabin fever, common up North in winter when there's little sunshine. In its most severe form, it's a real disorder called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms disrupt daily activities and include lethargy, hopelessness, fatigue, headaches, general pain, nausea and inability to concentrate. But there are also what Dr. Francisco Fernandez, chairman of psychiatry at USF Health, calls weather-sensitive people who experience the same physical symptoms of SAD when weather changes. "They react to any significant change in temperature, barometric pressure or oncoming rain," says Fernandez. And tropical storms and hurricanes add anxiety and stress.

Headaches: Again, the scientific data may not be there, but Morton Plant Mease neurologist Dr. Stuart Sinoff says, "There's no question that weather affects headache patients. All you have to do is look at their headache logs." Like a journal, these written logs help patients track the time of day, what they were doing, eating, drinking, even thinking when a headache started. Weather changes often coincide with headaches. What's unclear is what's to blame: falling barometric pressure, rising pressure or temperature shifts. Says Sinoff, "It's an easy, short study to do. Give patients a barometer for six months and have them record how they feel." It just hasn't been done on a large scale. If anyone gets around to it, sign me up.

Labor and delivery: The rumor is rampant in Florida: Hurricanes and their low barometric pressure can induce labor. Turns out it's a myth. "There's no scientific data to support that," says Dr. Jill Hechtman, an ob/gyn at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital in Tampa who has delivered babies for more than 10 years. Even though births at Women's peak during summer and fall, Florida's hurricane season, Hechtman says that probably has more to do with timing rather than hurricanes — taking vacations and making merry around the holidays. She notes there's also an uptick in births following a busy hurricane season. "People are stuck at home, there's nothing else to do," says Hechtman.

Heart attacks: Everyone's heard about the 65-year-old, overweight, largely inactive guy who collapses while shoveling snow in his driveway. The sudden exertion, along with cold temperatures, can cause arteries to clamp down, reducing blood flow to the heart, triggering a heart attack. "It's not cut and dry though. It's a theory, because you also have to wonder: Did they have the flu? Was it because they were out of shape? We don't know for sure," says Dr. Jordan Hopkins, Pepin Heart Hospital interventional cardiologist. But Hopkins says there is data on patients who have an ICD, an implant that shocks the heart if it begins beating abnormally. These patients have more shocks during extreme weather events. "It's possible that the anxiety or stress associated with bad weather causes biochemicals to be released that then cause heart rhythm problems."

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

Is weather to blame for our aches and pains? 07/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:04pm]
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