Have your grandparents ever complained about their joints hurting when it's cold? As if winter wasn't miserable enough already, it's common wisdom that unpleasant weather is accompanied by aches and pains. Some people even believe that their joints can predict the weather — the sun may be shining in a blue sky overhead, but their backache is a sure sign that rain is on the way. But is there any truth to the notion, or is it just a bit of old folklore that has hung on a few centuries past its time?
While the idea of a relationship between weather and health is an old one, dating back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the answer is might be the latter. In a Harvard Medical School study published in the BMJ, researchers looked at a huge amount of data to see if there was any link between rainfall and joint pain. Using Medicare records, they analyzed more than 11 million primary care visits by older Americans between 2008 and 2012, looking for reports of joint or back pain. Researchers then compared these visits to total daily rainfall. Their goal was to see whether patients reported more pain on rainy days or in the days afterward. The team paid special attention to people with rheutmatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder causing chronic joint inflammation.
In the end, researchers came up with nothing. Despite popular belief, there was no measurable link between rainfall and joint pain, even among people with rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, patients were slightly more likely to report pain on dry days than wet ones.
While researchers admitted that it's hard to prove something doesn't exist (see: the entire Bigfoot mythos), they analyzed so much data that if there was a link, it probably would have shown up in a small way. "As physicians, we should be sensitive to the things our patients are telling us. Pain is pain, with or without rain," said the study's lead author, Anupam Jena, in a press release. "But it's important to know that, at the clinical level, joint pain does not appear to ebb and flow with the weather."
The study did not account for the use of over the counter painkillers or the severity of pain, so researchers said another, more detailed study of the same size would be useful.
In the past, research on the subject has been a bit of a mixed bag. Earlier this year, an Australian study also found no connection between the weather and body aches. On the flip side, some small studies have actually suggested that it's true. In 2016, British patients with arthritis or back pain said their symptoms worsened on rainy days and improved on sunny ones.
Medical experts who put stock in the idea have theorized that it's not the rain or cold that causes the pain, but the fluctuations in barometric pressure. Physical therapist Lauren Farrell told SELF that these changes are thought to cause an inflammatory response in your joints, which in turn causes "increased joint pain, due to changes in circulation and possible nerve fiber sensitivity."
But there's always the chance that the connection is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it's rainy outside and you expect your joints to hurt, you might be paying more attention to your body and more likely to go to the doctor than you would otherwise. If they don't hurt, you might forget about it and get on with your day.
It looks like the jury is still out on this one, so it's hard to tell if you should blame the winter weather for any aches and pains. Still, feel free to consider the upcoming season your excuse to soak your poor, weary body in a hot bath as often as you want. Your grandmother is probably doing the same thing.