TIME Pain

Achy Back? Don’t Blame the Weather

Changes in the weather don’t cause back pain, say researchers.

Some people insist they know when it’s going to rain because they can “feel” it in their bones. Or their knees start aching. Or their back. Their explanation? They’re more attuned to changes in air pressure, precipitation, and the like. But a new study reveals that might be nothing more than magical thinking.

Researchers in Australia put to the test the idea that weather triggers back pain. They recruited 993 people who saw doctors because of low back pain and matched those visits to national meteorological data on temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction and precipitation. They also checked the same weather parameters one week and one month before the patients reported their pain. It turns out there was no statistically significant correlation between weather changes and back pain.

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“We had an open mind on the issue,” Daniel Steffens, from the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Syndey, told TIME in an email. “We had heard many patients attribute their worsening pain to the weather, but we also knew there was limited research. In our very rigorous study we found no evidence that weather is associated with an increased risk of back pain.”

One of the strengths of the study, published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, involved the fact that the same participants were evaluated during stable and changing weather, meaning that most of the other variables that could affect pain, such as people’s lifestyles, behaviors and genetics, remained the same.

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So why do so many patients believe that weather affects their joints? Some studies have found an association between cold or humid conditions and people’s symptoms of chronic pain, but the reason for the link from a physiological point of view isn’t known.

Steffens and his colleagues aren’t discounting the potential role that weather could play. They admit that Sydney, where the study was conducted, is blessed with relatively temperate conditions.

But for now, it looks like back pain sufferers can’t blame the weather. Steffens notes that other factors, including the way people move and lift heavy objects, as well as stress and fatigue, may be more important for triggering aching backs.

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