People often say they can feel the weather in their bones. Approaching storms become convenient scapegoats for various aches and pains. Just one problem: That sixth sense doesn't really exist, according to a pair of recent studies. Psychology—rather than physiology—is the likely culprit behind these gripes.
"Clinically, I see patients who swear up and down that their joints can predict the weather," says Melvyn Harrington, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine who was not involved in the studies.
The homespun theories abound: Drops in atmospheric pressure and an increase in humidity that accompany precipitation spikes inflammation in joints that are already in pain. Or maybe it's that cold temperatures slow circulation and restrict blood flow to distressed joints.
New research, however, indicates that this connection between pain and weather may not be as solid as it seems. In one study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, researchers from the George Institute for Global Health at the Sydney Medical School looked at data that reported episodes of intense back pain from 981 subjects and compared those reports to weather conditions such as barometric pressure, temperature, and relative humidity that day. They found no correlation between patients' bad days and the conditions that people with joint pain often claim make them feel worse.
These conclusions align with findings from an earlier study by the same researchers about weather and back pain. (The researchers received such vehement backlash on social media that they felt the need to review the subject again, according to a press release.)
In yet a third similar study, conducted by another team from the George Institute, participants with knee pain filled out a survey about their most painful days, which the researchers compared to the weather in their zip code that day. Again, they found no association between episodes of knee pain and weather.
So if there's no physiological reason to complain, why are people still doing it? It could be how they're wired: Years of whining about our joints as the storm clouds approach may have encouraged people to selectively remember episodes that strengthen the link.
That said, both weather and pain are so complicated that it's not easy to point to a cause-effect relationship, says Veena Graff, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care at Penn Medicine. "I think it's difficult to simulate what weather does to pain," she says. The sensation is influenced by so many factors that it may be a stretch to say that weather has no relationship to it at all, she adds.
Harrington suggests it would be interesting to look at how the temperature or pressure changes from day to day, instead of the absolute measurements, since that is what his patients most often point to as the cause of their weather-related spikes in pain.
Humidity may not cause acute back pain to set in, but a string of bad weather might cause someone to skip physical therapy, which could make chronic pain conditions feel worse. Bad weather can also put people in a bad mood, Graff says, which is known to exacerbate pain. And she's not ruling out the explanation the researchers gave: that cultural and social norms might make patients think their pain is worse when you'd rather not go outside.
"As human beings we often want to have an answer as to why we are feeling a certain way," Graff says. "Especially with pain, which is such a multifactorial issue. But sometimes it's not very straightforward."