A Forecast On Pain

Are weather-related complaints biological or psychological? How weather affects chronic pain symptoms depends greatly on sufferers' belief systems.

By Carol Potera, published on March 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Weather vs. Symptoms

"Aches and pains, coming rains" is no wives' tale for those who live with chronic pain. But are such weather-related complaints biological or psychological?

"People with arthritis have weather-related joint pain for biological reasons," says Michael Shutty, Ph.D. Their joints swell due to low barometric pressure. But among people with other types of chronic pain, the picture is not quite so clear.

Shutty and his colleagues created a questionnaire to evaluate how weather affects patients and gave it to those attending a pain clinic at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, for neck, shoulder, or arm pain.

All but three percent of them reported some connection between the weather and their pain. Temperature changes, humidity, precipitation, and sudden weather changes were most commonly reported as causing pain. Symptoms most influenced by weather were muscle aches and soreness, joint stiffness, and trouble sleeping, the researchers report in Pain (Vol. 49, P. 199).

Although a large number of patients said that weather affected their pain, "when you ask them to name specific symptoms, they're inconsistent," says Shutty. This suggests that psychological factors are involved.

"People have beliefs about pain and weather that influence how they feel," says Shutty. Some patients notice the weather only when pain worsens. Others hear a weather forecast and start dwelling on pain. "If you truly believe that weather affects your pain, you'll focus on it when the weather's bad," says Shutty.

He believes that the psychological and biological factors involved in pain are highly individualized. Recognizing the extent of psychological beliefs can help patients avoid being debilitated by them. "Many focus on their pain so much, they may not get up in the morning. They end up doing less, when they could be doing more to help themselves." A good rehabilitation program should assess whether weather makes patients focus on pain, and work to overcome its barriers.