Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
There’s nothing like a gray, rainy day or a shift in weather conditions to make you feel an achiness in your joints or bones. Whether you have a medical diagnosis or simply feel a little creaky with shifts in climate, many of us associate rain with pain.
A New York Times article says there’s not much worth in the conventional wisdom. The Times cited a research study that investigated the influence of rainfall on joint or back pain. In its analysis of millions of older Americans, the researchers found no statistically significant link between rain and physician visits.
How we evaluate scientific findings
The study cited in The New York Times was originally published in The BMJ (formerly The British Medical Journal). At Arivale, we go beyond the headlines to bring you a well-considered assessment of the science. Our general tactic for assessing research that’s discussed in the mainstream media is:
- We examine the actual study in its original publication. We consider the methods and limitations of the research.
- We look at other bodies of evidence. In this case, The New York Times cited the findings of just one study.
Having looked at the original study and other scientific literature, here’s our take: The jury is still out. This study examines one small part of the science between joint health and climate. There are many dimensions of weather that could affect your bones and joints. This study only examined a very specific population, through the prism of a single variable: Rainfall.
Why previous research wasn’t enough
Many people believe that changes in the weather—including humidity, rainfall, or barometric pressure—cause flare-ups of joint or back pain, especially among people who suffer from arthritis.
Several studies have explored a possible link between weather patterns and joint pain, reaching mixed conclusions—including the possibility that it’s all in our head. Some studies did look at a variety of weather conditions and included a good amount of detail, but were survey-based, and only investigated small numbers of patients.
How the BMJ study was different
The BMJ research explored the relationship between rainfall and outpatient visits for joint and back pain. The study looked at medical records of more than 11 million doctor visits made by older Americans who are insured by Medicare.
Their medical conditions included rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, spondylosis, invertebral disc disorders, and other non-traumatic joint disorders. The study pivoted on rainfall as the key variable, comparing the proportion of doctor visits for these conditions, on rainy versus non-rainy days.
As it turned out, after accounting for age, sex, race, and various chronic conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, the researchers found that slightly more visits for bone and joint pain actually happened on dry days rather than wet ones—6.39 percent for dry days; 6.35 percent for wet ones.
Overall, the study concluded that in these older Americans, there was no relation between rainfall and outpatient visits for joint or bone pain. The New York Times declared rainy day-related aches, officially, an “old wives’ tale.”
Why we go deeper than the headlines
First, the BMJ study is just one of several that have looked at the correlation between weather and ache. Other studies have explored this association, with many weather patterns besides rain, and come to different conclusions1-10.
Second, this study had limitations:
- This study only assesses outpatient doctor visits. It doesn’t account for the experiences of people who suffer from bone or joint pain but choose not to visit the doctor.
- This study only looked at rain, not temperature, humidity, or barometric pressure. Some people attribute their bone and joint pain to those weather patterns.
- There wasn’t much detail about the severity and pain of the people experiencing each disease.
- The findings didn’t include information about how patients may have used over-the-counter drugs to self-manage their symptoms.
- The study primarily focused on conditions, using diagnostic codes, rather than symptoms.
- It focused on older patients.
Our conclusion: More research is needed. The study authors themselves note that a relationship between the weather and joint or bone pain may in fact exist.
Are you experiencing joint or bone pain?
Whether or not you think it’s because of the weather, discuss your symptoms with your primary care physician. If you already have shared what you’re experiencing with your doctor, and you are cleared for exercise, consider some indoor activities.
Take care of yourself
Arivale Coaches are dedicated to helping members stay active and feel your best. And Arivale scientists continue to monitor new studies, separating fact from fiction, and keep us up to date. In the meantime, when the forecast is damp, consider how to take care of yourself in the great indoors.
Find more clarity about health from our coaches, scientists, and the rest of the Arivale team.
- Drane, D., Berry, G., Bieri, D., McFarlane, A. C. & Brooks, P. The association between external weather conditions and pain and stiffness in women with rheumatoid arthritis. J Rheumatol 24, 1309–1316 (1997).
- Beilken, K., Hancock, M. J., Maher, C. G., Li, Q. & Steffens, D. Acute Low Back Pain? Do Not Blame the Weather-A Case-Crossover Study. Pain Med 18, 1139–1144 (2017).
- Smedslund, G., Mowinckel, P., Heiberg, T., Kvien, T. K. & Hagen, K. B. Does the weather really matter? A cohort study of influences of weather and solar conditions on daily variations of joint pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum 61, 1243–1247 (2009).
- Dorleijn, D. M. J. et al. Associations between weather conditions and clinical symptoms in patients with hip osteoarthritis: a 2-year cohort study. Pain 155, 808–813 (2014).
- Timmermans, E. J. et al. The Influence of Weather Conditions on Joint Pain in Older People with Osteoarthritis: Results from the European Project on OSteoArthritis. J Rheumatol 42, 1885–1892 (2015).
- Smedslund, G. & Hagen, K. B. Does rain really cause pain? A systematic review of the associations between weather factors and severity of pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Eur J Pain 15, 5–10 (2011).
- Abasolo, L. et al. Weather conditions may worsen symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis patients: the possible effect of temperature. Reumatol Clin 9, 226–228 (2013).
- Duong, V., Maher, C. G., Steffens, D., Li, Q. & Hancock, M. J. Does weather affect daily pain intensity levels in patients with acute low back pain? A prospective cohort study. Rheumatol Int 36, 679–684 (2016).
- Steffens, D. et al. Effect of weather on back pain: results from a case-crossover study. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken) 66, 1867–1872 (2014).
- McAlindon, T., Formica, M., Schmid, C. H. & Fletcher, J. Changes in barometric pressure and ambient temperature influence osteoarthritis pain. Am J Med 120, 429–434 (2007).