WITHIN Blog: August 2020
Sunshine, Lollipops, Rainbows… and Chronic Pain?
By Jenna Gillett and Dr Nicole Tang on behalf of the WITHIN Team.
The summer holidays have begun, and as we approach mid-August, our yearly allowance of approximately 3 full days of sunshine and thunderstorms are on their way. Of course we say it with a sense of British humour but within the overall context of climate change it’s becoming more conceivable that we will have longer and hotter summers in the near future. For many of us, the promise of white sandy beaches and warm Mediterranean sunshine is just not feasible for 2020 and we are all having to make do with, at best, a paddling pool or a cool bath! This got us thinking, with the ever changeable and uncertain weather, what is the impact, if any, of our weather on pain experiences?
We know that approximately 75% of people with long-term pain conditions, such as arthritis, report that weather affects their pain (Hagglund, et al. 1994) – with many stating that pain is often worse when it is cold. For some individuals however, heat may exacerbate symptoms and cause flare ups – one study looked at the frequency of online searches relating to knee, hip and arthritis pain in the USA, and found that online searches for these increased on days with higher temperatures (25-30°C) (Telfer & Obradovich, 2017). Conversely, a study including patients with fibromyalgia found no significant relationship between pain ratings and the weather conditions, but interestingly those who had experienced symptoms for <10 years were found to have a greater weather sensitivity to pain than those who had experienced symptoms for more than 10 years (Fors & Sexton, 2002). It is important to note, however, that these previous studies are potentially limited in that they focused too narrowly their participant samples as well as not tracking weather and symptoms for long enough, across different seasons.
JILLWELLINGTON VIA PIXABAY
We recently came across a nifty chronic pain study designed to target these limitations. The aptly titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain” (Dixon et al., 2019) study saw researchers based at the University of Manchester launch a 15-month smartphone study in 2016 to track how the weather, temperature and UK climate can impact how pain is experienced. People with chronic pain (including arthritis, fibromyalgia, widespread chronic pain, migraine and neuropathic pain) took part in the study. On average participants were aged 51 years old and were predominantly female (83%) UK residents. Every postcode area in the UK was represented to help build a broad picture of different weathers nationally. The participants also reported believing that a weather-pain relationship existed.
The study found that in general, on days where the weather was very damp, windy and had low pressure pain was 20% more likely compared to a day with average weather.
Higher relative humidity had the strongest link to more painful days. The lower the pressure, the more likely participants were to report a painful day. Higher wind speed was also linked, but to a lower extent. Although temperature did not have an effect on likelihood of pain overall, cold days could be more painful if they were also damp and windy. Interestingly, rainfall was not associated with pain – despite 74% of participants believing it would impact their pain.
PEXELS VIA PIXABAY
So what does this tell us?
The results from the Dixon et al. (2019) study show that weather could have an impact on pain. The effect appears to hold even when mood and physical activity were taken into consideration. However, such effect is neither absolute nor all influencing and tends to vary across individuals and pain conditions.
It might be fair to say then that the weather could influence how much pain we feel. However, by getting to know our typical pain responses to different kinds of weather we have every chance to be better prepared, managing the pain by looking after ourselves and planning our activities. With this in mind, the WITHIN team would like to wish you all a fun, re-energising summer – whatever the weather!
For more info about the Cloudy with a Chance of Pain study, click here to visit the webpage.
Dixon, W. G., Beukenhorst, A. L., Yimer, B. B., Cook, L., Gasparrini, A., El-Hay, T., Hellman, B., James, B., Vicedo-Cabrera, A. M., Maclure, M., Silva, R., Ainsworth, J. Pisaniello, H. L., House, T., Lunt, M., Gamble, C. Sanders, C., Schultz, D. M., Sergeant, J. C. & McBeth, J. (2019). How the weather affects the pain of citizen scientists using a smartphone app. NPJ digital medicine, 2(1), 1-9.
Fors, E. A., & Sexton, H. (2002). Weather and the pain in fibromyalgia: are they related?. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 61(3), 247-250.
Hagglund, K. J., Deuser, W. E., Buckelew, S. P., Hewett, J., & Kay, D. R. (1994). Weather, beliefs about weather, and disease severity among patients with fibromyalgia. Arthritis & Rheumatism: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 7(3), 130-135.
Telfer, S., & Obradovich, N. (2017). Local weather is associated with rates of online searches for musculoskeletal pain symptoms. PloS one, 12(8), e0181266.