BOSTON — The feeling in your bones when rainy weather is on the way is more likely a simple coincidence and not proof of the old wives’ tale linking dreary conditions to achy joints, a new study finds.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School pored through data from 11 million primary care visits in the United States and cross-referenced them with weather statistics from thousands of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stations. The study found no relationship between rainfall and a prevalence of joint or back pain.
The belief that the weather can influence a person’s medical condition dates all the way back to ancient times, when Hippocrates wrote in his book On Airs Waters, and Places in 400 BC that to understand medicine, one must study the prevailing winds.
But an analysis study, led by Anupam Jena a professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Health Care Policy, couldn’t find any evidence that this long-held belief is true. “No matter how we looked at the data, we didn’t see any correlation between rainfall and physician visits for joint pain or back pain,” says Jena in a university release. “The bottom line is: Painful joints and sore backs may very well be unreliable forecasters.”
Jena’s team studied more than 1.5 million primary care visits by Americans 65 and older between 2008 and 2012. Overall, 6.35% of the office visits reported joint or back pain on rainy days, compared to 6.39% of visits reporting pain on all other days.
“It’s hard to prove a negative,” Jena said, “but in this flood of data, if there was a clinically significant increase in pain, we would have expected to find at least some small, but significant, sign of the effect. We didn’t.”
To be sure, the researchers even looked at days of office visits and compared them to rainfall not just on that day, but for that week and the preceding week. They still could not find a sure-fire link. Even on weeks where rain fell for the entire week, they calculated joint and back pain complaints to be comparable to weeks where no precipitation fell at all.
“As physicians, we should be sensitive to the things our patients are telling us. Pain is pain, with or without rain,” Jena said. “But it’s important to know that, at the clinical level, joint pain does not appear to ebb and flow with the weather.”
The full study was published Dec. 13, 2017 in the journal BMJ.