The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why Your Joints Ache When It Rains

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There are some health-related myths that just refuse to go away: sugar making kids hyper, learning styles, women’s periods syncing up when they live together. These are ideas that have burrowed deep into our collective consciousness; no matter how much the research calls them into question, it seems, they refuse to be shaken loose.

Here’s another one for the list, highlighted by Eric Boodman at Stat: The idea that the cold and the rain make the joints ache. “Almost everybody with arthritis does have the conviction that the weather influences their condition,” rheumatologist Timothy McAlindon told Boodman. And as the article noted, so do people with a host of other conditions, from broken bones to fibromyalgia.

But new research suggests the belief isn’t necessarily grounded in reality. In a study recently published in the journal Osteoarthritis Cartilage, Stat explained:

The researchers asked 345 patients to log onto a website every time their pain flared up for eight hours or more — and then the team linked those episodes to the temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, and precipitation recorded in that patient’s neighborhood around that time by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The researchers also looked at the weather on days when the patients had no flare-ups. They found no significant relationship between pain and any kind of weather change. 

A separate study, published last month in the journal Pain Medicine, reached a similar conclusion about the relationship between weather and back pain (namely, that there isn’t one). Meanwhile, a 2007 study in the American Journal of Medicine did find that changes in temperature and barometric pressure caused increased knee pain in arthritis patients — but the effect that also held, contrary to the common wisdom, when the change meant the weather was getting warmer.

In trying to make sense of the conflicting results, the most telling study may be one published in 1996 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which argued that the belief itself, rather than the weather, was the cause of the pattern. As study author Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, put it to Boodman: “Individuals seize on times that support their ideas, neglect the times that are contrary to their ideas, and misinterpret the times that are ambiguous.” We tend to see patterns where there are none, in other words — and when you’re looking for an explanation for your pain, the weather’s as good as anything else.

This Psychological Quirk Is Why Rain Makes Your Joints Ache