Ever heard someone say that when a storm is brewing, they can feel it in their bones? Or that when the temperature drops, their decades-old shoulder injury flares up? Maybe you’ve even said something similar. People have been claiming that weather fluctuations trigger bone and joint pain for centuries, but according to new Australian research, any correlation between the two is all in our head.
In two separate studies, researchers from the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney compared reports from more than 1,300 pain sufferers against data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. They found no evidence that temperature, air pressure, humidity, precipitation, or wind plays any role in the onset or severity of aches.
The first study analyzed preexisting data from 981 people with acute lower-back pain. The researchers compared the weather one and two days before each patient’s pain began to the weather one week and one month later. Of all the meteorological measures, only temperature increases had any effect on pain reports. But the effect was so minor that the researchers deemed it insignificant.
For the second trial, 345 participants with knee osteoarthritis were tracked for three months. Every 10 days they reported their pain on a scale of zero to one. Additionally, they logged onto the study website any time their aches intensified by two points or more. After three months, the researchers cross-checked pain scores against weather data. Yet again, they found no correlation.
These findings fly in the face of a few older studies that have confirmed the connection. That’s because past trials couldn’t separate weather’s actual impact from participants’ long-held beliefs about it, says Chris Maher, lead investigator and director of the George Institute's Musculoskeletal Division.
“In previous research, people were asked if they thought weather influenced their pain,” he says. “That’s a bad way to study the issue because you simply get opinions and recollections of pain and weather. People don’t have perfect memories, and their thinking can be biased.” Because his study asked only about patients’ symptoms and not about their ideas of what sparked them, Maher believes his data is much more convincing.
He also thinks his findings make perfect sense. “Humans are warm-blooded,” Maher says. “So our body temperature is pretty constant and our basic physiological parameters are tightly controlled, despite weather changes.”
But if that’s true, then how come many people swear that weather fluctuations do trigger their pain?
“They preferentially recall the occasions that suit this view and ignore the occasions that do not,” says Maher. “People are fallible. We look for patterns in our experiences and sometimes we see patterns that aren’t there.”
Despite these findings, not all experts are convinced this case is closed. “The ‘whether weather or psychology’ question has been debated across many studies,” says Guy Eakin, senior vice president of scientific strategy for the nonprofit Arthritis Foundation. “This group has taken the very valuable approach of measuring osteoarthritis and back pain patients against themselves, rather than comparing them to a population. That said, the researchers are tackling a tough problem and there will always be limitations to the research.”
Among the main limitations, these studies investigated only pain. “Arthritis is a group of more than 100 disorders, some with very different mechanisms,” Eakin says. “The knee osteoarthritis paper doesn’t get into other presentations of OA. It also doesn’t get into rheumatoid or other types of inflammatory arthritis, which may be different.”
Another study weakness is that Australia doesn’t experience the extreme weather changes that many other regions do. So just because an Aussie doesn’t have sharper pain when the temperature dips a few degrees, that doesn’t mean a guy in Denver won’t feel a flare-up when a blizzard barrels over the Rockies and tanks the temp 30 degrees.
“We also don’t know if these patients spent more time outside or inside during the studies,” Eakin says. “Or whether they took measures to address climate changes such as adjusting their household heat or air conditioning. If they did, that might have changed the data.” The researchers also didn’t control for factors that could affect perception of pain, such as anxiety.
Lingering doubts aside, does the question even matter? Unconfirmed beliefs could have consequences only if you decided to move to a different climate solely because you hope it’ll ease your pain. “The biggest downside of saying weather controls your pain is you give up control over your symptoms,” says Maher. “You’re not helpless. There are lots of things you can do to control your own pain.” For instance, for osteoporosis, he says a healthy lifestyle — eating well, keeping your weight in check, exercising — should be the starting point.
“It’s also bad to think that treatment should only involve things a doctor gives you, like medications, or does to you, like injections,” Maher adds. “Think of your doctor or physical therapist as a coach, while you’re the main person responsible for living a better life with osteoarthritis or back pain.”