Cloudy with a Chance of Pain

A debate surrounding the relationship between weather and pain has been around for centuries. Approximately 80% of those who visit the GP for Rheumatoid Arthritis believe the weather influences their pain. Digital technology is now enabling us to explore this relationship and try to find an answer; the research endeavours to explore whether there is a scientific basis for this belief.

Cloudy with a Chance of Pain launched in January 2016 as the world’s first smartphone-based study to investigate the association between weather and pain; focusing on arthritis and other forms of chronic pain such as fibromyalgia. Supported by Arthritis Research UK, uMotif, and the Office for Creative Research and in association with the University’s Health eResearch Centre, University of Manchester researchers developed Cloudy as a citizen science project with the active involvement of members of the public.

To understand which weather conditions most affect pain, a group of University of Manchester–based researchers and their collaborators conducted a 14-month long study with over 13,000 UK residents living with chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis. The participants would record their daily pain intensity within an app on their smartphones. The GPS location of the phone would then link to the weather data. To analyse the millions of daily reports of participants’ pain levels, the researchers compared, within each individual, days they experienced a significant increase in pain from the day before to days they experienced no such increase. This large dataset made it possible for the researchers to disentangle the importance and size of the effects for the different weather variables.

The researchers found that days with higher humidity, lower pressure, and stronger winds – in that order – were more likely to be associated with high pain days, a result consistent with the beliefs of many of the participants. Because of the large size of this study, we are able to report on the relative importance of these effects. The findings also showed that whilst mood has strong associations with pain, the association between the weather and pain was not explained by its effect on either mood or physical activity.

This research validates the beliefs of the three quarters of people living with long-term pain that weather does impact pain. If you know that certain weather conditions might increase your pain, you can plan your activities around it and take greater control of your life. Finally, a better understanding of the effects of the environment on pain may allow scientists to better understand the mechanisms that cause pain in people, and therefore allow the development of new and more effective treatments for those who suffer with pain.

The results have now been published in npj Digital Medicine and those interested are invited to explore the data.