thunderstorm

Photo (c) 2012 Fred Wasmer, www.fredwasmer.com

Thunderstorms are dramatic events, so it’s not surprising that they often bring out powerful emotions, ranging from excitement to fear. And for people with chronic illnesses, strong emotions can sometimes contribute to physical symptoms. They might worsen an asthma attack, for example, or make it harder to manage an arthritis flare.

Yet there’s more to the story than that, according to experts in human biometeorology—the scientific study of the interaction between atmospheric processes and human health. Research suggests that there may also be a more direct link between stormy weather and wheezy airways or achy joints. Here’s what science says about the complex connection between mind, body, and thunderstorms.

Thunderstorm Asthma

Over the past three decades, scientists have reported mass outbreaks of asthma attacks associated with thunderstorms in Great Britain, Australia, and Canada. During these outbreaks, emergency room visits for asthma jumped to five to 10 times the usual rate.

Stress and anxiety may have played a role. Many asthma patients are children, and fear of thunder and lightning is common in young kids. Usually, the fear fades as children get older, but a milder version of the primal response to booming thunder and crackling lightning may stick around. In someone with asthma, chemicals released by the body when under stress can cause muscles around the airways to constrict, making it more difficult to breathe.

Pollen is another factor tying summer thunderstorms to asthma. According to one popular theory, updrafts carry whole pollens into the cloud base of the storm, where they break open into an easier-to-inhale form. When the storm starts, downdrafts carry the pollen pieces back to ground level, where they can easily trigger allergy and asthma symptoms.

But that’s not all. In a 2009 article, scientists from the University of Georgia and Emory University noted that, when a thunderstorm strikes, air temperature tends to plummet. In people with asthma, rapid cooling of the airways can make symptoms worse.

Plus, each flash of lightning produces a puff of nitrogen oxide gas, which can then react with sunlight and other gases to produce ground-level ozone. People with asthma are more sensitive to ozone in the air, which raises the risk for asthma attacks.

Rainy Day Arthritis

It’s a cliché: An old-timer predicts the storm a-comin’ when his achy knee starts acting up. To some extent, this may be a case where believing is seeing. People believe that there’s a link between arthritis pain and storms, so they notice when these two events coincide—and they fail to notice all the times when their arthritis flares up in fair weather.

In a study published several years ago, researchers from the University of Toronto and Stanford University showed college students six pairs of graphs. The top graph in each pair was said to show changes in a patient’s daily arthritis pain, and the bottom graph was said to show daily barometric pressure for the same period.

In reality, the graphs had been created for the study. One showed pain and barometric pressure moving in the same direction. One showed them moving in opposite directions. And four showed no consistent relationship at all. Almost all the students correctly identified the patterns in the first two graphs. But they tended to see patterns in the other graphs as well. They were looking for a pattern, and they found it—even where it didn’t exist.

Still, the belief that arthritis gets worse on rainy days is so prevalent among both patients and rheumatologists that it’s hard to discount completely. Studies that have tried to confirm the connection have produced mixed results, but that may just be because it’s such a difficult issue to study.

Some scientists blame the increased pain on a drop in barometric pressure, which often precedes a storm. As pressure around a joint drops, tissues expand slightly. If there’s already swelling in the joint due to arthritis, people may feel this change more acutely.

In surveys, up to two-thirds of people with arthritis say their symptoms are affected by the weather. The Weather Channel even offers an Aches and Pains Forecast. My own forecast for thunderstorm season is steadily rising interest in the fascinating interplay between mind, body, and weather.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in psychology. Follow her on Twitter. Find her on Facebook. Visit her online.

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