Aches and pains? Don’t blame the weather

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Changes in temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind and rain don’t affect lower back pain or knee osteoarthritis after all.
Credit: MirekP / Getty Images

Despite popular belief, bad weather doesn’t worsen back or knee pain, according to new research.

Two papers published by The George Institute for Global Health at Sydney University interrogated the widespread theory that cold weather and rain can exacerbate pain.

The new work supports the results of a 2014 study, also by the George Institute, which received backlash on social media because it countered the beliefs of so many people.

Chris Maher who was involved in the new back pain study, which was published in the journal Pain Medicine, says: “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.”

Maher and colleagues focused their research on lower-back pain – the most prevalent musculoskeletal condition, affecting up to 30% of the world’s population at any given time.

A link between bad weather and back pain has been recorded since Roman times, the researchers say – even Hippocrates observed that illness can be affected by seasonal change.

The team used data collected an earlier study into pain relief from 981 patients reporting the onset of sudden lower-back pain lasting less than six weeks.

The team then gathered weather data including temperature, humidity, wind, air pressure and rainfall from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology for the day each patient reported pain onset, as well as one week and one month prior, to measure any possible link between pain onset and weather.

They found no statistically significant link. Although a very small correlation between higher temperatures and back pain was observed, it was too slight to be deemed clinically important.

A second research team, led by Manuela Ferreira, conducted a similar study using patients across Australia living with knee osteoarthritis, which usually involves sporadic bouts of pain.

They compared spikes in pain reported by 345 participants to weather data from the corresponding dates and, again, found no correlation. Their work has been accepted for publication in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage.

The researchers say our belief that weather affects pain could be the reason there’s so much anecdotal evidence of this link.

“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,” says Maher.

Ferreira says these results should sway patients to focus on more realistic variables to improve their levels of comfort.

“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,” says Ferreira.

“What’s more important is to focus on things you can control in regards to managing pain and prevention.”

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