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Does Rain Increase Joint Pain? Researchers Say No

Many joint pain sufferers believe that they can predict the weather based on their symptoms.

Rheumatologists, doctors who specialize in treating joint pain, say they hear this a lot, even though there isn’t much evidence that supports a link between sore joints and damp weather.

But according to new research published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine and Harvard University have found a relationship between temperature and Google searches related to hip and knee pain.

Senior Caucasian woman rubbing her hands
On rainy days, search volumes for joint pain decreased. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Scott Telfer, lead author of the study and assistant professor in Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at the University of Washington, said, “When the temperature increased, so did the number of searches for hip and knee pain, up to around 86 degrees Fahrenheit."

Telfer thinks that because people are more active during nicer weather, they are also more prone to being injured. That's when they turned to the web for help.

The researchers also found that rain was related to a reduction in the number of searches for hip and knee pain.

“It's not impossible that some people with arthritis are sensitive to changes in weather, but our study and others in the literature suggest that the effect is very small or that these people are very few,” Telfer told NBC News.

Past studies only showed vague associations with weather and joint related pain.

But the question remains.

Where did the myth originate?

Since the fifth century B.C., scholars such as Hippocrates — the “father of modern medicine” — have highlighted the connection between the weather and joint pain. He famously noted that, in marshy regions, the icy rains of winter give men “a troubling thinness about the shoulders and clavicles” and that “their viscera will be very dry and warm and thus require the stronger drugs.”

But Tefler notes that the history of this ‘myth’ and our own bias may play a role in why these beliefs still persist.

“Once an idea is out there it's easy for conformation bias to inflate its effect. For example, whenever a change in your arthritis pain level happens to coincide with a period of bad weather you make note of it, but are less likely to remember the times when pain levels changed, but the weather didn't,” said Tefler.

This may explain why grandma and grandpa report less joint pain symptoms after they move to Florida.

The most widely accepted theory by medical professionals is that changes in barometric pressure also known as the weight of the air, can cause expansion and contraction of tendons, muscles, and bones, resulting in joint pain. Low temperatures, which may also increase the thickness of joint fluids, can also contribute to the pain that many experience.

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Still, the association between rainy or damp conditions and joint pain has not generated conclusive results.

“I think science supports these theories, but the research has been conflicting,” says NBC News medical contributor and rheumatologist, Dr. Natalie Azar. “There have been a fair number of studies that have looked at this but the results have been inconsistent.”

Does Google agree with Hippocrates?

Web searches are often people’s first response when they experience adverse health symptoms.

Knee- and hip-pain searches increased as temperatures rose until it grew uncomfortably hot; rainy days tended to slightly reduce search volumes for hip and knee pain. So the researchers believe physical activity levels are primarily responsible for those searches.

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This conclusion was not what many might expect.

“There is definitely 'something' to the myth because many of my patients report that their arthritis symptoms increase when the temperature and barometric pressure drop," said Azar. "Cool and damp conditions seem to be the biggest culprits."