UW: Google searches suggest rain doesn't increase joint pain

A rainy day in Seattle. (Photo courtesy: Tim Durkan)

SEATTLE -- Can your achy body be a predictor of the weather?

A new study by University of Washington researchers suggests the weather is not to blame.

The study went back and checked Google searches over a five year period about hip pain, joint pain and arthritis in 45 major U.S. cities, then correlated the searches with the weather at the time. The data included temperature, precipitation, relative humidity and barometric pressure – variables previously suggested as associated with increases in musculoskeletal pain, researchers said.

The idea for using internet data came from that web searches are increasingly people's first response to experiencing adverse health symptoms, researchers said.

They found as temperatures rose, searches about knee and hip pain rose steadily, too. Researchers noted knee-pain searches peaked at 73 degrees and were less frequent at higher temperatures while hip-pain searches peaked at 83 degrees and then tailed off.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, rain actually dampened search volumes for both.

"We were surprised by how consistent the results were throughout the range of temperatures in cities across the country," Scott Telfer, a UW Medicine researcher in orthopedics and sports medicine, said in news release announcing the findings.

What's more, among the weather variables, Telfer said only temperature and precipitation were found to have statistically significant associations, and only with searches for knee and hip pain, while arthritis had no correlation to weather factors at all.

"You hear people with arthritis say they can tell when the weather is changing," Telfer said. "But with past studies there's only been vague associations, nothing very concrete, and our findings align with those."

Instead, their researchers infer that "changes in physical activity levels" were primarily responsible for the searches for pain relief.

"We haven't found any direct mechanism that links ambient temperature with pain. What we think is much more likely explanation is the fact that people are more active on nice days, so more prone to have overuse and acute injuries from that and to search online for relevant information," Telfer said. "That's our hypothesis for what we'll explore next."

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