My background is in Geography; I studied for my BSc at The University of Manchester in the 1970's and was fortunate enough to have two excellent teachers of Meteorology. They helped to foster a growing interest I had developed in the weather from an early age – my Dad was an avid amateur weather watcher and forecaster. Whilst at Manchester, I took two specialist courses in Meteorology as part of my degree with the aim of joining the Met Office; however, at that time, they were more interested in people with Maths/Physics degrees so I had to re-think my career path.
I qualified as a secondary school teacher in Geography in 1977 and completed three years at Bolton school before taking up a job in an international school in Switzerland in 1980. I remained in Switzerland for the next 22 years, living a full and active life. My professional life was busy and demanding and I combined this with a love of hiking, skiing and tennis.
Living in Switzerland, I was able to continue with my amateur weather watching and I enjoyed teaching this aspect of Geography to my students, particularly at A Level. The Swiss have long been very conscious of the effect weather can have on people and the study of Biometeorology has a long history here. Microclimatic variations in weather caused by altitude and aspect are well documented. The Föhn wind is a regular occurrence in some parts of Switzerland and each day the newspapers carry a biometeorological forecast for things such as asthma, cardiac conditions, rheumatism/arthritis and allergies. It is a recognised fact that the Föhn wind affects people both physically and psychologically.
During the years when I was fit and active, the only effect I noticed from the changing weather in Switzerland was that the Föhn wind and decreasing pressure seemed to cause me to have headaches but I wasn't conscious of any other effects.
However, during the late 1990's I began to notice that my health was deteriorating with frequent and recurring infections as well as problems with muscles and joints. I had a particularly nasty bout of shingles in the late 1999 and began to feel very below par for long periods of time. Visits to the doctor didn't result in any definitive diagnosis except for the infections; I suffered from sinusitis, cystitis, otitis, bronchitis amongst others.
In 2002, I returned to the UK with my husband and we settled in the North of England. My health continued to deteriorate and I seemed to be constantly at the doctors for one thing or another. The changes to my body were insidious – aches and pains, constant infections, coughs, sinusitis etc. I noticed that I was less and less able to walk and play sport – my muscles hurt, I constantly developed spasms in my neck, back and hips and I was constantly tired.
In 2005, following a particularly bad period of ill health, the GP finally ordered blood tests and called me back the same day to say that I needed to go in to see him urgently. There was apparently no measurable thyroxine in my body. He told me that my thyroid had completely stopped working but that I hadn't shown any of the typical physical symptoms of this until now. I was referred to an endocrinologist in Manchester and there began a period in my life which effectively meant that my former busy, active and fulfilling life came to an end. I asked the endocrinologist when he thought my body would stop hurting as I felt as if I had flu all the time – I was exhausted and every part of my body hurt. He replied that some of the damage to my muscles may be permanent but that I must remain hopeful that once my thyroxine levels were normalised things would improve. They didn't. For years, I had no energy, piled on weight in spite of trying to exercise, and I felt very poorly. I was constantly hurting and miserable, in spite of being a naturally happy, outgoing person who loves the outdoors.
To cut a long story short, the last eleven years have been a battle to regain some sort of quality of life; in spite of almost constant soreness (pain doesn't really describe what I feel). I was determined to find out as much as I could about my condition in order to better understand how to help myself. I was referred to a rheumatologist and was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, joint hypermobility and fibromyalgia. More recently I have been under the care of a consultant endocrinologist at Salford Royal who has helped me more than anyone to improve my quality of life and to reduce my pain. She put me back on to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), prescribed a tiny dose of venlaflaxine (37.5 mgms for hot flushes and pain) and asked for a vitamin D test. This came back with a low reading and I was then treated with high dose vitamin D to optimise my levels, followed by a maintenance dose. This multifaceted approach, combined with an increased exercise programme (walking daily) has given me more hope of leading a normal life than I ever dreamed was possible.
During the past 11 years, I came to realise that I had some really bad days and some which were less bad – truly good days were so few and far between. However, on some days, there could be a change in just a few hours from feeling really sore, stiff and almost incapacitated to being able to manage things requiring physical activity quite well. There didn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to the pattern until I realised that there was a link to the weather.
Over the past few years, I have started to look more closely at the synoptic charts when I feel really sore and stiff. My background in meteorology helped me to understand that there were a number of possible variables which could be affecting my soft tissues and joints. Humidity levels and pressure changes appeared to be the most important variables in this respect. I have also noticed that my worst days occur when an active front is crossing over our region and in particular, it would appear that occluded fronts cause me most problems. I have no idea why! My husband has a watch which also shows pressure change and I will often ask him if the pressure is falling, when I notice an increase in my soreness/stiffness. Usually, I am ahead of the pressure change – his watch usually records a drop in pressure just a few hours later! I have one more thing which is weather related and that is ocular migraine which I get when the pressure is very low or dropping suddenly.
When I heard about the Cloudy with a Chance of Pain study, I was so keen to get involved. I immediately wrote to Will Dixon with a few of my thoughts and then I started to record my symptoms regularly. As we travel four times a year to Switzerland, there are gaps in my readings – I mentioned this to Will at the time.
I meant to get in touch again sooner but as I have been feeling better in the last twelve months, I have managed to start work again on a freelance basis as a teacher trainer for Geography in international schools. It is exhausting and on bad weather days, my soreness is difficult to deal with, but knowing that it will pass, learning how to manage my pain and how to pace myself under the guidance of my endocrinologist, have meant that I am now able to feel useful again!
I am so grateful for this opportunity to contribute to a study which may help shed some light on chronic pain and how to manage it. I firmly believe that the weather does influence our pain levels (and perhaps other natural phenomena do too – lunar cycles? pollen/spore levels? Changing levels of positive and negative ion in the atmosphere caused by weather changes? The Föhn?)
As I write this, I am in Switzerland and we have just experienced a few days of the Föhn wind followed by a spell of very wet weather today caused by a series of fronts. Needless to say, my body has been pretty sore for the last 24 hours but the sky is clearing as I write, and I know that as the pressure rises and the humidity falls, this will improve and I can look forward to a few days when I feel as if I could do anything! Well…not quite! But it feels good to know that there will be better days ahead.
Do you have a message for Cath, or your own pain story that you would like to share with the Cloudy community? If so, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.