People with fibromyalgia often live at the whims of the weather. A stormy day is enough to trigger a weeklong flare-up and winters seem to last forever. When cold temperatures roll around, we dash for electric blankets, heating pads and sweaters, venturing outdoors only in yeti-like garb.
But hibernating from pain gets old fast. It’s no surprise that many of us contemplate a move to warm climates. The effect of weather on FM symptoms is mostly anecdotal—but when seeking long-term solutions for symptom relief, even anecdotal solutions are worth a closer look.
The FM-Weather Connection
In an internet survey of 2,596 fibromyalgia sufferers conducted by the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA), weather changes ranked second as a perceived aggravating factor for fibromyalgia symptoms with an increase in pain or stiffness. However, research studies on the fibromyalgia/weather connection are limited, leaving frustrated doctors and patients searching for solutions.
More acknowledged in the medical community is the connection between arthritis symptoms and weather. Dr. William C. Sheil, an arthritis specialist and chief editor of medicine.net, writes, “Doctors who specialize in treatment of patients with arthritis generally agree that many patients experience a worsening of joint symptoms with changes in weather.” The best-known study, conducted in 1961 by Dr. J. Hollander, showed that inflamed joints swell when barometric pressure drops. But Sheil admits that the study used a limited number of participants.
However, few people with FM suffer from joint inflammation. The best we can rely on is our personal experience. Perhaps you stray indoors on cold days or need an afternoon nap when a storm blows in. In my case, my mother just happened to notice that the pressure in our old-fashioned kitchen barometer had dropped on a day I was having a particularly bad flare-up. From then on, she observed the weather more closely—and in the end, she could accurately predict when I was going to have a bad day.
Moving for Symptom Relief
Dr. Robert M. Bennett of Oregon Health and Science University, co-author of the published piece on the NFA’s internet survey, does not recommend moving for symptom relief—without taking a test run. He says, “I would not advise a patient to move to a hotter/ dry climate just because they have FM unless they have found a pronounced and sustained improvement after living in the new location for about six months.” Bennett reminds patients that there have been no epidemiological studies comparing diverse climates with the prevalence of FM.
Sheil also recommends taking some time before relocating. He notes that scientific studies show that people adjust to new climates over time. This could mean the temporary symptom relief you experience on your annual vacation to the Grand Canyon may be just that: temporary. Couple this with the fact that not every fibromyalgia sufferer is affected by weather changes, and moving starts to sound more like a hassle than a cure-all.
The Pros and Cons of Relocating
Jeanine Maxwell was tdiagnosed with FM in 2005, after two years of unexplainable symptoms. After living in Utah for 45 years she decided o move to New Mexico. Since her move, Maxwell has noticed that her allover achy pain has abated, and weather changes have no noticeable affect. “When I lived in Utah, I could feel a cold front coming in at least two days before,” she says. “During the winter, I spent days in bed under my heating blanket. I just knew I would not be able to make it through another winter.”
Ideally, Maxwell would love to live in San Francisco—but she had to take weather into account when relocating. “Whenever the temps are below 30 degrees, I basically cannot function. Whenever the temps are above 90 degrees, I cannot function,” she explains. “It worked for me to get out of the humidity of Utah.” Still, Maxwell acknowledges that what worked for her pain won’t work for all those who have FM. Moving also came at a cost. Though she has some family in New Mexico, the majority of her family lives in Utah.
When moving for symptom relief, people with FM often choose warm and dry climates often found in the Southwest—but how will global warming impact that “FM-friendly” weather? Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicate that global warming will cause global weather pattern changes. How do these models translate to a state level? Not very well, according to New Mexico’s state climatologist Ted Sammis. The overall verdict of climate experts is that temperatures in general will rise—but how much, and to what effect, is still unclear.
Is Moving Right for You?
Could you benefit from a move? Here’s a handy checklist to determine if relocating is the right choice for you.
* You experience increased pain, stiffness, or fatigue when the weather changes.
* You have experienced symptom relief after living in a different location for six months or longer.
* You have strong medical support, financial support, and emotional support in your new location.
* You have consulted with your physician in regards to relocating for symptom relief.
When Moving isn’t an Option
Moving may be just impractical. When that is the case, what can you do to relieve weather-related pain and fatigue? The folks on the fibromyalgia support forum at dailystrength.org have some tried and true recommendations, including heating pads, electric blankets, long sleeves and warm clothing, and light exercise.
If these solutions aren’t enough for relief in the depths of the winter months, make like a bird and fly south for the winter.
There is little scientific research on the impact of weather changes on FM symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean that relocating won’t work for you. If you are severely affected by weather changes, moving to a new place might be the solution for your symptoms. Just make sure you do your own research before you call in the movers. As Maxwell’s doctor told her before she left Utah, there are just as many doctors in Arizona caring for fibromyalgia patients as there are in Pennsylvania.