Sore joints aren’t barometers, researchers find


The belief that bad weather prompts aches and pains isn’t supported by the evidence. Andrew Masterson reports.


Joint pain and rain may be linked in the mind, but not, it seems, in the numbers.
Joint pain and rain may be linked in the mind, but not, it seems, in the numbers.
Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images

For generations, folk wisdom has maintained that certain people can detect the approach of rain because its imminent arrival causes flare-ups in joint or back pain. Such people can, to use the idiom, “feel it in their bones”.

If this is so – if there is, in fact, a causal relationship between the approach of inclement weather and the symptom severity of chronic conditions that manifest in joint pain – then it should be simple to detect a quantifiable measure thereof.

The reasoning goes like this: although many people with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis suffer the fluctuations of their symptoms at home and in silence, a certain proportion must seek relief by attending outpatient centres.

And if this is the case, given a large enough sample and a long enough time, one would expect to see bigger numbers of joint pain cases on or near rainy days than on sunny ones.

This was the approach of a team of researchers led by Anupam Jena from the Harvard medical School in Boston, US, in compiling a paper published in the British Medical Journal.

Jena and his colleagues accessed US Medicare records, covering just over 1.5 million people aged 65 or under. Between them, the cohort made 11,673,392 visits to outpatient facilities, between 2008 and 2012, seeking treatment for rheumatoid or osteo arthritis, disc disorders and sundry joint-related conditions.

The team then cross-referenced attendance dates with rainfall data.

The result? Bupkis.

“No statistically significant relation was found between the proportion of claims for joint or back pain and the number of rainy days in the week of the outpatient visit,” the researchers conclude.

Jena’s team is reluctant to completely write off the “commonly held belief” that joint disorders can somehow be used to predict the weather, and calls for an even larger study to further interrogate the idea.

For the moment, however, it seems that what you feel in bones may well be real, but it has nothing to do with an imminent downpour.

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
  1. http://www.bmj.com/content/359/bmj.j5326
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