People with the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often wonder about the effects of altitude on their symptoms and condition. In fact, myRAteam members have asked each other whether they should take trips to the mountains or continue going on ski vacations after being diagnosed with RA.
It is true that some people with RA find that extreme changes in altitude can affect their arthritis. Here, we will consider experiences from people with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as research on the impact of altitude on the disease.
People measure altitude from the Earth’s surface upward. The higher the altitude, the farther apart air molecules are from each other, so they exert less pressure on an object — including the body. The lower the altitude, the closer air molecules are, and the more pressure they exert.
Air pressure can be called “barometric pressure” (also called atmospheric pressure). A barometer measures air pressure. Low barometer readings generally indicate a high altitude. High barometer readings generally indicate lower altitudes.
Factors beside altitude can influence barometric pressure, too. Storms moving through an area may raise, then lower air pressure significantly. Other weather conditions, like temperature, can do the same — air pressure can change with hot and cold weather. For someone with RA, that means they might experience the effects of two different pressure ranges on their condition — the first altitude-related and the second weather-related.
People with all types of arthritis have reported connections between barometric pressure and their pain. In general, an increase in pain follows a decrease in air pressure. As pressure increases, pain lessens. However, researchers have only begun to study this phenomenon relatively recently.
It might be that drastic changes — like traveling to the mountains from a low-lying area, or vice versa — lie behind the pain flares. Whether tissues are expanding (under low pressure) or contracting (under high pressure), any big shift from one to the other might cause someone with RA to feel pain.
When asked about the effects of altitude on RA, myRAteam members who live at higher altitudes said they don’t notice any changes in their pain levels. As one wrote, “I live a mile high and feel no different when I’m home (at higher altitudes in the mountains) or at sea level.” Another said, “I live at 7,000 feet, and I don’t think the altitude has made a specific difference in my symptoms of RA.”
However, because these members live at high altitudes, their bodies may have grown accustomed to the low pressure and its effects. That said, myRAteam members living at all altitudes have reported changes in their RA when barometric pressure changes caused by weather shifts occur.
One member, for instance, shared that oncoming storms cause their pain to worsen: “It hurts so bad before it rains — a throbbing ache at my finger joints,” they wrote. “I get to the point with the pain that I want to bite the skin off my fingers to get rid of it.” Another myRAteam member posted about how the weather saps them: “Dry cold is fine with me. The worst is when it’s hot and muggy.”
Research shows that there are several possible ways that changing altitudes could affect someone’s rheumatoid arthritis. Some of these are specific to what you normally experience with your RA. For instance, if you don’t have related lung problems, then altitude changes may not affect your lungs as much.
As always, consult your doctor for medical advice if you have questions about altitude changes and its effect on your RA. Your rheumatologist should be able to help you make decisions about travel that are right for you and your body.
Synovitis (inflammation of the synovial membrane, which lines the joints) is one of the key symptoms associated with RA. One study from 2014 suggested that this particular kind of inflammation worsens in low air pressure. While the researchers cautioned that their study was not conclusive, their results may indicate that people with RA would experience more swelling (due to higher disease activity) at higher altitudes.
A report from a team of scientists in Switzerland who studied the effect of air pressure on 51 males might counter this idea. These researchers saw that increases in altitude lowered some inflammation markers in the study’s participants. If you apply this idea to people with RA, it could be possible they, too, would experience lower inflammation at higher altitudes.
Changing air pressure might be more problematic for people with RA than either steady high or low pressure. People diagnosed with RA seem to experience more pain when cold, rainy days roll in — days when the barometric pressure lowers, no matter the altitude.
Some people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis also experience problems with their lungs. This happens when the inflammation characteristic of the disease causes scar tissue to form in the lungs over time. Some people may also develop RA-related inflammation in the pleural area (the area that surrounds the lungs) or in the lungs themselves. Over time, inflammation of the lungs can cause blockages or small, narrowed airways. RA can also cause rheumatoid nodules to form on the lungs. These nodules can cause breathing issues.
Changes in altitude can also cause breathing problems. Because oxygen molecules are further apart at high altitudes than they are at lower altitudes, higher elevations make it more difficult to fully oxygenate the body. (Simply put: not as many oxygen molecules are being inhaled.) These changes can make breathing difficult, even in those who do not have RA. But, if someone has RA and related lung problems, high altitudes can make it extra-hard for them to breathe.
Every person diagnosed with RA will need to decide for themselves if travel to higher or lower altitudes is something they want to try.
People who have lung problems and RA should talk to their health care team before they make travel plans that involve big changes to altitudes. Your doctor will be able to offer tailored guidance based on your health.
Finally, decisions about whether or not to travel will sometimes take mental health into account. A trip that will make you feel better, raise your quality of life, and increase your well-being might be worthwhile. Even if you have to take extra precautions due to RA.
On myRAteam, the social network for people with RA and their loved ones, more than 187,000 members come together to share their experiences living with the condition. Have something to add to the conversation? Share your experience, thoughts, or tips in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.
Are you wondering how altitude affects other people who are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis? Do you want to travel with RA, but you’re not sure what you need to consider before you plan a trip? Ask these questions and anything else you’re wondering about at myRAteam.