Experts Say Weather’s Not to Blame for Your Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

The age old debate over weather’s impact on pain is heating up again with new research indicating that cold, rainy weather has no impact on symptoms associated with back pain or osteoarthritis.

Researchers at The George Institute for Global Health in Australia say damp weather makes people more aware of their pain, but the symptoms disappear as soon as the sun comes out – suggesting there’s a psychological cause.

“Human beings are very susceptible so it’s easy to see why we might only take note of pain on the days when it’s cold and rainy outside, but discount the days when they have symptoms but the weather is mild and sunny,” said Professor Chris Maher, director of the George Institute’s Musculoskeletal Division.  

“The belief that pain and inclement weather are linked dates back to Roman times. But our research suggests this belief may be based on the fact that people recall events that confirm their pre-existing views.”

Maher and his colleagues conducted two studies involving nearly 1,000 Australians with back pain and 345 people with osteoarthritis.

Using weather data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, researchers compared the weather at the time patients first noticed pain with weather conditions one week and one month before the onset of pain as a control measure. 

Results showed no association between back pain and temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction or precipitation. Warmer temperatures did slightly increase the chances of lower back pain, but the amount of the increase was not clinically important. 

A previous study on back pain and weather at The George Institute had similar findings, but received widespread criticism from the public.

“People were adamant that adverse weather conditions worsened their symptoms so we decided to go ahead with a new study based on data from new patients with both lower back pain and osteoarthritis. The results though were almost exactly the same – there is absolutely no link between pain and the weather in these conditions,” said Maher.

The back pain study was published in the journal Pain Medicine. The study on osteoarthritis was published in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage.

“People who suffer from either of these conditions should not focus on the weather as it does not have an important influence on your symptoms and it is outside your control,” said Associate Professor Manuela Ferreira.

The Greek philosopher Hippocrates in 400 B.C was one of the first to note that changes in the weather can affect pain levels. Although a large body of folklore has reinforced the belief that there is a link between weather and pain, the science behind it is mixed.

PNN readers say there’s little doubt in their minds that there’s a connection.

“I totally agree that rainy weather does affect pain. I have osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and pain is most severe when there is a change happening in the weather especially rain,” wrote Dee.

“It's been well established that the source of weather-related pain is a direct result from the variance in barometric pressure,” said Judith Bohr. “Changes in the intensity of that pressure is felt more acutely in the parts of the body where there are injuries, degenerative changes, surgeries, wherever there is an increased sensitivity because of inflammation.”

Others say they can predict the weather based on their pain levels.

“So many sunny days and I've said it’s going to rain. People thought I was crazy for a while, but now they know,” said Ashley. “My kids are always asking if it’s going to rain.”

A study currently underway in England suggests there is a connection between weather and pain. Over 9,000 people are participating in The University of Manchester’s Cloudy with a Chance of Pain project, using a special app on their smartphones to record their daily pain levels. The app also captures hourly weather conditions.

Preliminary results show that as the number of sunny days increase, the amount of time participants spend in severe pain decreases. When the weather turns rainy and cloudy, however, the amount of time people spent in severe pain increases.