Effect Measure

Joint pain and migraines: weather or not

While I work on my monster grant proposal — I and my colleagues have been working on it for 9 months, but with the deadline only 3 months away it is time to turn the volume up to 11 — blogging may be light or brief. But posting something is an excuse to take a break and surf the web a bit, so that’s what you’ll be getting for the next 3 months. After that I’ll probably check into an institution with no internet access to be sedated.

Yesterday I read on Medgadget that AccuWeather is selling an iPhone app to alert users of weather-associated health events in 16 locations:

Do you suffer from chronic health challenges? WeatherMD helps you manage multiple conditions from which millions of Americans suffer. WeatherMD helps you determine how weather conditions might impact your conditions and comfort level if you suffer from arthritis, asthma, migraines, allergies, sinus problems and much more. (Medgadget)

Yeah, well maybe. Exactly how or even if weather triggers flare ups of some of these health conditions seems to be an open question. Not if you ask people who suffer from these conditions, of course. It has always seemed to me that my migraines are triggered by weather, but I’ve never really tested it. My son, who is as rabid a skeptic as you’ll find and a professional statistician to boot, swears that his shoulder tells him a day or two before a weather change.

If the influence of weather on joint pain is urban legend, then it is very, very old urban legend. When I was a medical student doing a rotation at one of the most famous orthopedic hospitals in the world. This was more than 40 years ago. We were in a group of 4 students attached to one Attending Physician and making clinical rounds at the hospital. While we were waiting for the next patient we were making small talk and one of my classmates asked the Attending why people complain about joint pain in damp and cold weather. I remember very distinctly his answer: “Really? he said. I never heard that.”

This seems to be another case of a deep chasm between popular and scientist knowledge related to lack of a known or at least agreed upon biological mechanism. I took a quick look at the literature and things don’t seem to be much clearer. A fair number of observational studies for various conditions that seem to confirm a weak association with various weather indices, but no one meteorological measure working even for a single condition like migraines or arthritis.

So this $4 iPhone app will probably make AccuWeather some money but may not help much.

Or maybe it will.

Comments

  1. #1 tymbuktu
    January 25, 2010

    Odd that you should bring this up. After getting rear-ended and whiplashed several times :-/ I would notice that sometimes for no apparent reason I would get worse. I always assumed I must have “slept on it funny”.

    Several years later I finally started to realize that although not every time I felt bad was the weather bad, but every time the weather was bad I felt bad. I asked my chiropractor about it and he said that although he was not aware of any studies, almost all his patients felt worse when a low pressure system approached. He thought the pressure differential must have something to do with it.

    One of the reasons I moved to San Diego was to be in a place with exceptionally good weather. This last couple of weeks as you know we were hit with the biggest rain storms in decades. I was virtually bedridden with neck, shoulder pain and headaches, although I’d been here long enough I had sort of forgotten about the connection.

    I used to joke if I felt achey — “Must be a storm comin’ in — my rheumatiz is actin’ up.” There usually was.

  2. #2 megan
    January 25, 2010

    SIMPLE ANSWER (to a so called scientist) Air FRICKIN PRESSURE affects the human ANIMAL like any other living thing. Like water pressure and the bends happen in water. The human skull IS NOT perfectly sealed to isolate outside pressure and joints etc are being pressed upon and the difference in airpressure can affect the internal synovial fluid sacs or regions.

    The snide haha of people who aren’t afflicted(I once was an ass too) makes me hope they receive some physical accident/ailment or tragedy to gain the experience, as cruel as it sounds, since they seem lucky in life/general health or weren’t genetically predisposed. wanker

  3. #3 Anne Laurie
    January 25, 2010

    Heck, it doesn’t take all that much of an air pressure change to affect all those little fluid-filled spaces in your head. Try riding the elevator in a skyscraper… lots of people find their ears ‘pop’ above the 40th floor or so. Best thing to happen in my last job was when they moved us from the 60th floor down to the 23rd, because on the lower floors I still suffered mightily with sinus headaches when the barometer dropped but at least I wasn’t throwing up. (Incidentally, lots of visitors found themselves mildly seasick on days when the wind was blowing but they seldom connected this with the fact that the ‘tower’ was swaying slightly. I’d tell new hires to check the lavatories if they didn’t know why they were feeling ‘off’ for no reason — even when you couldn’t consciously notice the sway, you could see the water trembling gently in the toilet bowls.)

  4. #4 C. Corax
    January 26, 2010

    I have a back problem. A coworker has the same back problem. He has repeatedly asked me whether my back pain gets worse when it rains. I’ve repeatedly told him “no.” I think he’s weird. He thinks I’m weird. So why do two people with ruptured discs have different experiences with weather-related pain?

  5. #5 Betsy
    January 26, 2010

    My daughter has pretty severe Rheumatoid Arthritis. She doesn’t watch weather reports, but I always know when a front is coming in (Texas weather is driven by fronts). She will be achy and miserable starting the day before. Her Doctor has told her that she is beseiged by patients calling about pain before fronts but just tells them that there is a front coming in and to take their pain medication. Not scientific but it must be something….

  6. #6 Eli
    January 26, 2010

    I’ve suffered chronic neck pain since 1989, when a surfboard sliced into my cervical vertebrae. I frequently go through periods of unbearable tension – often with migraine like symptoms. I’ve always kind of suspected it was affected by the weather – the accompanied depression sure is. I live in the desert now and the blue skies are a daily blessing.

    But everything I’ve read on the topic seems mixed. Joint, muscle, etc. pain can be a lot of different things. But there seems to be something there. And even if there’s nothing to really do about it – just taking some of the causal uncertainty out of the equation would be comforting.

  7. #7 Otto
    January 26, 2010

    “The snide haha of people who aren’t afflicted(I once was an ass too)….”

    “Once was”?

  8. #8 red rabbit
    January 27, 2010

    I suppose this would be an easy study to design, insofar as most people say it’s the coming and not so much the current weather that is affecting them.

    Log time and place, and state of pain…. perhaps by random phone call a couple of times a month for a few months… and then follow the weather reports for the same places for the next 2 days or so.

    Hmmm… maybe I’ll do it.

    I get migraine, but weather isn’t one of my triggers unless you count heat and sunshine. Well, except for the string of tornados…. hmmm some more.

  9. #9 Patrik
    January 27, 2010

    if you google for “headachemap” (in one word) you are likely to stumble over an idea I once had – but didn’t follow very far: build an elegant map-based website to collect where, how bad, how long people have what kind of a headache. “headache” being also one of the constants on twitter (see trendistic dot com)… there is already an iphone app called headache diary. now if this app could be made location aware and be connected to a website… but I have neither the coding skills nor really the time for building such a beast. If really a lot of people would use it, maybe some nice trends / stats could be extracted and visualized: headache clouds moving across the country. maybe this could assist to solve the puzzle if headache (or any other pain) has any association with weather conditions.

  10. #10 Tsu Dho Nimh
    January 27, 2010

    When I commuted I would have a horrible headache the day before a pollution advisory. Whatever set up conditions for the pollution problem also set me up for congestion and pressure.

    The barometric pressure change going from Phoenix up to a local ski resort can be enough to make my wrists throb (tendonitis and scarring).

    And any strong low pressure front moving across the state makes several old injuries and the afore-mentioned wrists ache.

    An orthopedic surgeon told me it was probably tiny differences in gas pressure of the dissolved gases in scar tissue and tendons as the barometric pressure outside the body changed. It is harder to diffuse out through tough tissues and even out the pressure.

  11. #11 anon
    January 29, 2010

    make a diary and submit it to some webpage
    (where is it ? there must be some … or let’s create it !)
    so they can make a statistics.
    Of course, you can cheat by watching the weather forecast,
    but most won’t, would they ?

    differences in pressure are small. If there is a connection,
    I’d suppose humidity or temperature

  12. #12 OleanderTea
    February 1, 2010

    What a silly app. My migraines are a better predictor of storm activity than weather reports.

    Whether or not a doctor agrees with the cause of the migraines is really not a medical issue, as far as I’m concerned. They tell when a front is coming, and they are 98% correct. That’s better than most technology.