So you’re at a wedding and great-Uncle Fred is going on about how he can tell when a storm is moving in because his back starts to hurt. And great-Aunt Ida is saying that Fred is practically a human barometer, that’s how consistently his back pain begins when the weather turns bad.
But you know better. Because in a new study released Thursday, a team of Australian researchers compared the onset of low back pain among 993 patients with meteorological records. They found no connection between back pain and changes in temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction or precipitation. (They did discover a slight association between an increase in wind speed and low back pain, but it was considered a statistical fluke, not a clinically significant finding.)
“What we found is that there was no evidence to support that changes in weather trigger low back pain,” Jane Latimer, a professor of musculo-skeletal disease at the George Institute of Global Health in Sydney, said in an interview. Given the widespread belief in the weather’s impact on various aches and pains, the study “shows the importance of research,” said Latimer, who led the study, which was published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research.
Most previous research on the subject has been plagued by poor study design, notably a reliance on participants recalling weather conditions at the time they remembered their back pain beginning. For this study, however, the researchers recruited nearly 1,000 participants who arrived at the offices of primary care doctors complaining about at least moderate back pain over 13 months in 2011 and 2012.
Then they collected hour by hour data on temperature, relative humidity, air pressure, wind speed, wind gusts, wind direction and precipitation. They compiled changes in those factors over the course of 48 hours before the onset of each patient’s back pain.
“Contrary to popular belief,” their paper concluded, “weather parameters, such as temperature, precipitation, air pressure, wind direction and humidity were not associated with the onset of back pain.”
“What we say to patients is ‘don’t worry too much about weather triggering your back pain. Look for other triggers’,” said Latimer. Those causes, research has shown, are the mundane, often preventable factors that most back pain sufferers already know about: lifting heavy loads, manual labor and awkward positions.
Low back pain is extremely common across the developed and developing world, causing more time disabled than HIV, road injuries, tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pre-term birth complications, according to one study. Latimer said 80 percent of the planet’s population will report an episode of back pain during their lives. The economic and disability burden often ranks near the top of causes compiled by the World Health Organization, she said.
“We want to prevent back pain because we know the cost to the community is huge and the suffering of the individual is tremendous,” she said.
So now if you want to set Fred and Ida straight, you can. Or you can just have another drink.