Commentary: New Study Documents Association Between Weather and Pain
Didier Demesmin, M.D. • Fri, November 11th, 2016
Preliminary findings from a University of Manchester study found evidence of an association between rain, lack of sunshine and chronic pain—indicating that weather may have a measurable effect on pain.
About 80% of people agree that some sort of relationship between weather and pain exists, however concrete scientific evidence to support this claim is currently lacking. Since the current study is still ongoing, researchers are encouraging interested participants to enroll in the study to contribute to the data collection.
The 18-month University of Manchester study is at the half way point of opening the door to the relationship between weather and pain and offering more detail as to its nature and incidence rate.
The study, “Cloudy With a Chance of Pain, ” is led by Professor Will Dixon, M.D., Ph.D., Digital Epidemiology at The University of Manchester's School of Biological Sciences. The research team recruited 9, 000 participants over the age of 17 who had arthritis or other chronic pain for at least three months.
To assess whether participants’ beliefs about weather and pain are related, for the first phase of the study participants were asked whether they believed pain is associated with weather and which weather condition affected pain the most.
Their answers show that 72% of patients believe that inclement weather and dampness had an effect on their pain.
Participants used a smartphone application to log their level of pain daily. This application automatically recorded weather conditions by GPS on a real time basis and combined this data with pain data which participants have been logging into their phones. The results of the preliminary analysis indicate a correlation between the number of sunny days, rainfall levels and changes in pain.
Many people, especially those suffering from chronic pain, believe that their level of pain may be affected by weather conditions. On the other hand, there are those who do not feel any difference in their pain in relation to the weather. Conclusive evidence of the specific mechanism behind the relationship is yet to be uncovered.
Since weather can be described in a variety of sub-factors, such as temperature or amount of precipitation, and there are many different types and intensity levels of pain, the exact relationship between weather and pain is complex and needs to be studied further and in more detail.
The research team of the “Cloudy With a Chance of Pain” study reviewed the interim data half way into the study, and looked at data from the cities of Leeds, Norwich and London. For all three cities, data showed that as the number of sunny days increased in the months of February to April, when winter turned to spring, participants indicated dropped levels of pain and severe pain was experienced less often. When the weather was wetter and there were less hours of sunshine, the amount of time spent in severe pain increased once again.
Many previous research studies analyzing the relationships between weather and pain found mixed or inconclusive evidence.
In 1992, a study conducted by the Psychology Department of Western State Hospital in Virginia assessed patient sensitivity to (meteorological) weather variables. Study findings showed that variables which affect pain the most were temperature (87%) and humidity (77%), and joint pain (82%) and muscle aching (79%) were the top physical concerns. Other studies showed no significant relationship, or mixed findings.
Although there is no clear evidence which explains the exact mechanisms linking weather to pain, and the link is largely hypothetical, some prominent theories exist which offer some explanation as to the relationship between pain and weather.
One theory is that air pressure, or barometric pressure, which is the weight of the atmosphere, may contribute to physical symptoms of pain. Lowered barometric pressure may cause body tissues to expand which may in turn put pressure on the area in pain. Nerves can become more sensitive to this if compromised by prior injury, inflammation or scarring and this may result in heightened sensitivity to pain for people suffering from chronic pain from previous injury. I personally find this explanation the most conclusive, as it directly explains the physical impact of a factor of weather such as barometric pressure on the human body.
It is not surprising to me that the amount of sunshine correlates with decreased levels of pain.
I always encourage my patients to spend as much time outdoors as possible and lead an active lifestyle. I understand that patients suffering from chronic pain may find it hard to find motivation to get outdoors and get moving, however this is critical for the healing process. Once more conclusive evidence is found, scientists and researchers can use this knowledge to further understand pain and explore new treatment methods and interventions for pain management.
Finally, it is great to see a study using modern technology to conveniently collect data from a mass amount of people, on a real time basis, and then store and compile the responses of all participants instantaneously. Using technology creatively and resourcefully in this way helps advance clinical research by collecting data outside of the clinical setting to use as complementary evidence to add to what we are able to study within the lab.
Author’s Information: Didier Demesmin, M.D. is an Interventional Pain Medicine Specialist who is double Board Certified in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine. He is the president and founder of University Pain Medicine Center. He graduated from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, where he received the prestigious award for Academic Excellence in Anesthesiology. He completed an Interventional Pain Medicine Fellowship Program at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons/St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center in New York. Dr. Demesmin is affiliated with some of the finest hospitals in Central New Jersey, including Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, JFK Medical Center, and Somerset Medical Center.