WASHINGTON – Weather forecasters can guess what impact the remnants of Hurricane Lili will have on the Mid-Atlantic region this weekend, if any.
Catherine Pickeral can tell you for sure.
The 80-year-old osteoarthritis sufferer said her joints throb as early as two days before severe weather and can predict shifts in weather patterns.
“I felt Isidore coming on,” she said of the recent tropical storm that hit parts of the East Coast. “If I tried to move it was like a knife cutting. I felt awful pressure in my back and legs.”
While it sounds like an old wives’ tale, professional weather forecasters concede that there is “actually some science behind the arthritis thing.”
“In the short term, they can predict within a day or two, so there’s actually some truth to it,” said Dewey Walston, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Arthritis patients, specifically women and those with osteoarthritis, have been known to predict weather patterns because they are “particularly sensitive to weather changes,” said Nicole Carey, president of the Washington, D.C., Arthritis Foundation. She said significant changes in barometric pressure and humidity can bring increased pain, allowing some to tell when severe weather is on its way.
“Some people will start to get achy and think it’s going to rain, so they won’t go out and will cancel their plans,” Carey said.
Arthritis is characterized by joint inflammation. The over 100 forms of the disease can be brought on by muscle strain, fatigue, depression and injury, said Elizabeth Freedman, a spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health.
Freedman said bone discomfort results from pressure changes that affect the fluid levels in joints. Because cold weather changes the air’s humidity and pressure, Carey said, arthritis patients can use their heightened discomfort as a weather vane for big storms.
“It’s kind of like when you’re on an airplane and your ears go `pop,'” she said.
Martie Majoros, a research editor at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, said she knows people who have accurately predicted weather patterns.
“They’re really sensitive to damp weather,” she said. “I believe that people can tell when it’s going to snow.”
Dr. Joseph Laukaitis, a rheumatology specialist in Washington, D.C., said that while there is no scientific study that proves the phenomenon, he believes his patients when they call themselves “human barometers.”
“My patients are pretty accurate. One elderly gentleman always comes in and says, `My elbow is telling me the storms are coming.’ I tell him I hope I can get him out of the office before the rain hits,” he said. “He says, `Well I knew it was going to rain yesterday.'”
Majoros — who is calling for a snowier, wetter and colder winter for the Mid-Atlantic with a “major blizzard” around Valentine’s Day — said the almanac does not hire employees specifically for the weather-prognosticating abilities of their joints. But it has been talked about around the water cooler, she said.
Walston said the National Weather Service does not hire employees with arthritis as weather barometers because there are more elements to consider besides pressure changes.
“Believe me our instruments are much more sensitive than bones,” he said. “Your arthritis may lie sometimes. It’s far from perfect.”
But Pickeral said it might help forecasters predict more accurately.
“I don’t think they will ever get it right because there are some things you have to experience to be able to know,” she said. “As far as computers, I don’t know. I’m the authority.”
As for this weekend’s outlook? Pickeral looked to the “grumbling pains” in her back and legs for guidance.
“I feel there is a change in the atmosphere, but we won’t get a thunderstorm,” the Washington resident said Friday. “We might be on the fringe of rain, but nothing too big.
“I certainly wouldn’t go out without an umbrella or a raincoat,” Pickeral added. “That’s just foolish.”