New Study Finds No Link Between Rainfall and Joint Pain – What Do You Think?

Can the weather affect rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms? It’s a question that I’ve seen come up over and over again in this community. Personally, I’ve never noticed much of a connection between the weather and my joints. Sometimes my joints seem to hurt a bit more if I’m really cold and I certainly feel more swollen when it’s really hot, but I’ve never been able to predict a rainstorm or anything like that.

RA: A unique struggle for everyone

But if there’s one thing I’ve really learned about RA in almost a decade since my diagnosis it’s that RA affects everyone uniquely. And there are many others living with RA – who I know and trust – who have made a connection between symptoms and the weather. Take my friends Leslie, Wren, and Tamara. They’ve all been living with RA for many years and have been able to establish a connection between their own pain and the weather.

So what does science have to say about this question? Previous studies have resulted in mixed conclusions. These studies also faced issues like small sample sizes (i.e. not enough data), problems of recall (i.e. patients may have had trouble remembering details from a while ago accurately), and the potential for confirmation bias (i.e. if you already personally believe the weather affects your RA you’re much more likely to answer survey questions in a way that confirms that belief).

What exactly is the deal between RA and weather?

To address these limitations, a research team led by Anupam B. Jena, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, took a different approach. Instead of surveying patients directly they attempted to address the question by analyzing data from millions of outpatient visits. Their hypothesis was that if a true relation exists between rainfall and joint pain, patients might be more likely to seek care from their doctors for those conditions during rainy periods. Or, alternatively, patients might be more likely to mention joint pain when seeing their doctors during a previously scheduled appointment that happens to occur during a rainy period.

The researchers decided to focus on outpatient visits with general internists or primary care physicians, rather than specialists like rheumatologists. They hypothesized that these doctors most frequently treat patients with acute joint pain. They also assumed that general internists are more likely to be able to see patients at short notice than specialists.

Using a Medicare database, researchers looked at records from 1,552,842 adults from the period of 2008 to 2012. They looked to see whether outpatient visits included a diagnosis code for a condition reflecting joint pain. Then they used data from the Global Historical Climatology Network Daily database to determine daily precipitation measurements matching the geographic zip code of the patient’s residence. To explore potential changes in barometric pressure, researchers identified the week that the outpatient visit occurred and determined how many days in that week the weather station had recorded precipitation.

Of all of the outpatient visits that included joint pain, the results showed that only 18% occurred on rainy days. This means that the researchers were not able to identify a statistically significant relationship between visits related to joint pain and rainfall – either on the day of the appointment or during the preceding week. Ultimately, the rate of joint pain reported during weeks with seven rainy days turned out to be similar to weeks with zero rainy days.

But what about what patients actually experience?

While the results of the study seem to debunk the commonly held belief that changing weather conditions may lead to an increase in joint pain, this new study does have some potential limitations of its own. For one thing, since this study relied on administrative data of outpatient visits, it could not detect patients with increased pain who chose to self-manage instead of visiting their doctor. Additionally, since the data came from a Medicare database, it included only patients who were older than 65. Lastly, this study focused specifically on rainfall, rather than other weather measurements such as humidity, barometric pressure, or temperature.

Nevertheless, this was a large scientific study that found no relation between rainfall and outpatient visits for joint pain. What do you think?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (5)
  • Annalisa
    1 year ago

    I would respond more strongly than the second to last paragraph in the article–relying on outpatient visits as a measure is simply stupid. I’ve never once gone to an ER or urgent care during a flare because there’s nothing those places can do for me. I have pain killers, heating pads, and people who care for me at home. Why would I go sit in a waiting room for hours to be told “well,there’s nothing we can do for you right now?” I very much doubt I’m in the minority.

    And testing visits during rainfall alone is ridiculous. Talk to anyone with RA and I think you’ll find that if they notice a difference, it’s tied to pressure, not the actual rain. My worst flares occur not when there is a day of rain but when it rains, then turns sunny the next day, then rain again. It’s the rapid change in barometric pressure, not the precipitation!

    This was a poorly done study and the fact that the researchers were trying to avoid “confirmation bias” is yet one more example of how too many people think that pain symptoms aren’t quite real. If a joint swells and gets hot, we have a real problem. But if a person says “I hurt here” and there are no external signs, that person is dismissed as over reacting or making it up. It’s depressing that a supposedly scientific study would START from the position that RA patients aren’t reliable and can’t be trusted to report their pain accurately.

  • Larry Sawyer
    1 year ago

    Unfortunately Harvard and Harvard medical school are no longer a centers of intellectual thought. Their faculty lives on the Harvard trust fund which means serious science has been replaced by snow flake pseudo science. pity

  • Ruthieq
    1 year ago

    I think that if one is in a severe flare without recourse for relief they ‘might’ see their rheumy for it. Most times I have had joint pains as the storm approaches, mild and irritating but not enough to seek out my doc. Relief comes mostly with topical Voltaren and passage of the low pressure. But I live in SW MI, which has a climate where weather systems train from west to east seemingly over my house a couple times a week in spring and late fall. I can predict fairly accurately when a front is coming. I think that there must be a better way to study this than seeing if we visit our rheumy. Most of us are fairly stoic about our pain and only complain in long or severe flairs.

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    1 year ago

    I doubt that outpatient visits with general internists or primary care physicians visits are a good indication RA pain. Heck if I ran to a GP every time I had a joint pain I would take my tent and sleeping bag and stay outside their office. Eventually, someone would get angry and call the police. I know no real difference in someone calling the police on me, but usually it is not my doctor.

    Unless there is a logical connection between the two events, It is impossible to draw any conclusions. I might ask do more people with red hair see the doctor on Thursday? Even if I found a relationship (which I would not) the question has to be asked is it real or important? Likely not. Same can be said here. One does not have bearing on the other.

  • Richard Faust moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Rick. I think you are onto something about people not running to the GP every time their joints hurt. The researchers try to get around the confirmation bias of people believing rain causes pain by their data collection method, but run right into another problem. People who feel they know what is causing their pain and that nothing can be done about it (last I checked GPs can’t stop the rain), don’t run to the doctor. Combine this with the acknowledged problems of only older patients (i.e. people less likely to come out in the rain) and ignoring other weather indicators (hello, air pressure) and I’m left with some serious concerns about the utility of what the study is measuring. Best, Richard (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

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