Many of us have an older relative who claims to have an
arthritic joint with the power to tell the future, at least meteorologically.
She will stare out the window on a perfectly pleasant, sunny day, distractedly
rubbing her painful shoulder, and proclaim solemnly, "A storm's a
She's hardly alone in her belief. The idea that certain painful
health conditions are affected by the weather is both widespread and ancient,
dating back to at least Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C and no doubt
earlier, according to James N. Weisberg, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in
treating painful conditions.
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But despite the venerable pedigree of the belief, should we
ditch our Doppler radar and our well-groomed television meteorologists and
replace them with Achy Joint Bulletins issued by our great aunts?
Probably not. Although many believe in the connection between
weather and health, most medical studies have come up with equivocal support at
best. So if there isn't a connection, or if the connection is relatively
unimportant, why do we believe in it so strongly?
As a science, human biometeorology studies the relationship
between atmospheric conditions and people. There are of course all sorts of
indisputable and obvious connections between weather and health, such as the
incidence of sunstroke on hot days or frostbite on cold ones, according to
Dennis Driscoll, emeritus professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M
and a meteorologist who specializes in human biometeorology. There are also
significant but less direct connections between weather and health, such as the
onset of allergies during pollen season. In such cases, the atmospheric
conditions are clearly affecting health, but they are playing more of a
supportive role than a primary one, Driscoll says.
But some researchers are interested in looking at less direct
potential connections between atmospheric conditions -- like temperature,
barometric pressure, and humidity -- and painful conditions such as arthritis,
fibromyalgia, and sinus or migraine headaches. The difference here is that the
connections are not as obvious and the mechanism that would cause the symptom
There is a seemingly endless supply of anecdotal evidence
backing up the belief that weather can affect painful conditions like arthritis
-- just ask some relatives at the next family picnic. Plenty of doctors see it
"Most of my patients complain of pain on rainy days,"
says Gary Botstein, a rheumatologist practicing in Decatur, Ga. "A lot of
them can tell you if a storm is coming based on their pain."
"Some of my patients are absolutely convinced of the
connection," Weisberg tells WebMD, "and they run the gamut from people
who are physicians themselves to those who never got beyond the eighth
It's important to stress that doctors and researchers do not
believe that weather actually makes arthritis or any of these diseases worse.
Instead, the idea is that weather can affect your symptoms. But why would
changes in the weather cause pain? No one is entirely sure.