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The Straight Dope

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Often I hear of people complaining about their bones or joints hurting when they think the weather is going to change. Is there any truth to this? Can people really tell when the weather is going to change, or is this just some psychological phenomenon that has people feeling ghost pains when they hear a cold front is coming in?

--Ann R., McAllen, Texas

Medical opinion is divided on this question. The most commonly expressed views may be summarized as follows:

(1) Yes, people can tell when the weather is changing because their joints ache.

(2) No, they can't.

(3) Some say yes, some say no. More research is needed.

(4) You talking to me?

But don't be too critical. We've only had about 2,000 years to work on this (2,400 actually, Hippocrates having discussed the effect of weather on chronic diseases in 400 BC). One more big grant, and we'll have it for sure.

Many, perhaps most, people with arthritis and other chronic joint ailments say their symptoms are affected by the weather. Their doctors tend to believe them, going so far as to advise the most intractable cases to move to a warm, dry climate.

At the same time, you get various fonts of negativity saying this is all bunk. For example, Donald Redelmeier and Amos Tversky note in a 1996 paper that:

(1) "No study using objective measures of inflammation has found positive results."

(2) In studies using subjective measures of pain (i.e., as reported by the sufferers), "some find that an increase in barometric pressure tends to increase pain, others find it tends to decrease pain, and others find no association."

(3) "Some investigators argue that only a simultaneous change in pressure and humidity influences arthritis pain, but others find no such pattern."

You see what I'm saying. We're not making much progress. And I'll tell you why we're not making much progress. Because guys like Redelmeier and Tversky come along and make sweeping pronouncements on the basis of minimal evidence. Having kissed off the previous 30 years of research, R & T proceed to do their own investigation, which is larded with sentences such as "The mean of these correlations was 0.016 and none was significant at P < 0.05." Conclusion: the weather/joint-pain connection is BS. Surprise factor in this result: zero. Total number of patients tested: 18.

Eighteen! Goddammit, boys, we're not going to settle 2,000 years' worth of argument by testing 18 lousy patients! (Speaking metaphorically, of course. I'm sure the testees were by and large insect free.)

To which one might reply, nice talk coming from somebody who's notorious for generalizing on the basis of one experiment in the backyard. Well, sure. But I'm writing for the newspapers, where most research consists of interviewing people in taverns. R & T are writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another problem is that everybody who looks into this seems to be testing something different. Are we talking about indoor climate or outdoor climate? Forecasting the weather or reacting to it? High or low pressure/temperature/humidity or changing conditions?

You probably figure I'm building up to my usual lament about the sorry state of medical research. Well, no. The situation actually is less confused than some people make out. You'll recall R & T's comment that we can't tell whether an increase in barometric pressure increases pain, reduces pain, or doesn't do anything. To illustrate, they cited four studies. I was able to get my hands on three of them. Turns out they misread the research. All three studies agree that an increase in barometric pressure is linked to an increase in pain in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Maybe not what you were expecting, since the popular idea is that aching joints herald storms, i.e., low pressure. But at least we're not obliged to believe that generations of arthritics have been making the whole thing up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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