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Rebecca Barnard

2017-01-12 15:00

Why it's important we keep studying the link between weather and pain

Scientists in Australia investigating the influence of weather on lower back pain published a study this week proclaiming that there is no evidence of a relationship between pain and weather.

The research was the second of two studies conducted by the George Institute of Global Health in Sydney into the relationship: the team had previous published a study on knee osteoarthritis which had also found no evidence of a link.

In both studies, researchers compared the weather at the time patients first noticed pain with weather conditions one week and one month before the onset of pain as a control measure. Results showed no association between pain and temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction or precipitation. However, higher temperatures did slightly increase the chances of the onset of lower back pain, but the amount of the increase was not clinically significant.

Professor Chris Maher, of The George Institute for Global Health, said: "The belief that pain and inclement weather are linked dates back to Roman times. But our research suggests this belief may be based on the fact that people recall events that confirm their pre-existing views.

"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."

This is of course a very contentious issue, and the investigators on the study have already seen an outcry on social media from people who are convinced that a weather and pain relationship is real. Here at Cloudy, we welcome all contributions to what is a very important area of pain research, but think that it is premature to conclude there is 'absolutely' no link between weather and pain. Our own preliminary results suggest that lack of sunshine and rainfall may be associated with pain, and the Cloudy study differs from the Australian studies in some key areas. Cloudy epidemiologist, Dr John McBeth, outlines these:

“While interesting, there are several problems with this study which mean that we still don't know if the weather is associated with pain:

First: the study assumes that people were free of low back pain at the 7 and 28-day time points. But they don't know if that's true. To know that they would need to track back pain every day.

Second: they only looked at the weather one and two days before the pain was reported. But it is possible that it is the weather 3 days, 7 days, 11 days beforehand, and so on, that may be important. To know that they would need to record the weather every day over a longer time

Third: most people with low back pain don't visit their doctor. This study will have missed most people who have back pain. To capture those, they would need to open the study up to all people with back pain, not just those who visit their doctor

Fourth: the back pain study only had 981 people, and the osteoarthritis study 345 people. It is possible that this wasn't enough. A study with a much larger number of participants would be able to robustly answer the question

So, while interesting, it's clear that this new study still has several problems. But luckily Cloudy with a Chance of Pain was designed to overcome these.

We look forward to analysing our data and finally answering this age-old question!"

Data collection for Cloudy will be running until April 20. To give us the best chance of discovering a relationship, it's really important that we gather as much data as possible for the next three months. If you are a part of the study, please keep tracking, if not, you can sign up until Friday 20 January!