A new study finds that, for people living with arthritis and other conditions that cause chronic pain, a certain kind of weather increases pain.
When someone tells you that they can feel bad weather in their bones, they may well be right.
Scientists, many at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom, have released the findings of a new study that exposes a link between chronic pain and humid, windy days with low atmospheric pressure.
The study is whimsically titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain.” It also appears in the journal npj Digital Medicine.
A folk belief supported by science
“Weather has been thought to affect symptoms in patients with arthritis since Hippocrates,” says lead study author Prof. Will Dixon, director of the Centre for Epidemiology Versus Arthritis, at the University of Manchester. “Around three-quarters of people living with arthritis believe their pain is affected by the weather.”
The study included more than 13,000 people from all 124 of the U.K.’s postcode areas, though the researchers sourced the final dataset from 2,658 people who participated daily for about 6 months.
The participants were predominantly people with arthritis, though some had other chronic pain-related conditions, such as fibromyalgia, migraine, or neuropathy.
The researchers collected the data with a smartphone app that they had developed specifically for the study. Each participant used the app to report their pain levels daily, while the app recorded the weather in their area using the phone’s GPS.
“The analysis showed,” says Dixon, “that on damp and windy days with low pressure, the chances of experiencing more pain, compared to an average day, was around 20%.”
“This would mean that, if your chances of a painful day on an average weather day were 5 in 100, they would increase to 6 in 100 on a damp and windy day.”
The data suggested no connection between actual rainfall and pain. Likewise, the researchers found no relationship between pain and temperature alone.
However, it does appear that temperature can make pain caused by muggy, turbulent weather worse: The most painful days for participants proved to be humid, windy days that were also cold.
The value of the study
Dixon suggests that the study’s findings could lead to meteorologists giving pain forecasts alongside air quality projections, which could help people with chronic pain “plan their activities, completing harder tasks on days predicted to have lower levels of pain.”
This would be no small thing. Says Stephen Simpson, Ph.D., of the advocacy organization Versus Arthritis: “We know that, of the 10 million people in the U.K. with arthritis, over half experience life-altering pain every day. But our healthcare system is simply not geared up to effectively help people with arthritis with their number-one concern.”
This leaves self-management as the only practical method for “helping them to get and stay in work, to be full members of the community, and simply to belong.”
Carolyn Gamble, one of the study’s participants, is living with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis, and she expressed happiness about the new insights.
“So many people live with chronic pain,” she says, “affecting their work, family life, and their mental health. Even when we’ve followed the best pain management advice, we often still experience daily pain.”
This is made even worse, Gamble says, by a tendency to blame oneself for flare-ups. She finds comfort in the study’s conclusions.
“Knowing how the weather impacts on our pain can enable us to accept that the pain is out of our control, it is not something we have done, or could have done differently in our own self-management.”
Dixon also hopes that pain researchers find this new information useful as they pursue a deeper understanding of its causes and mechanisms.