Not Just in Their Heads: New Research Confirms Connection Between Weather and Chronic Pain

Stormy weather increases pain. That fact is actually good news for people suffering from chronic pain whose complaints are often dismissed by family, their friends, and even their doctors.

Speaking, and likely complaining, about the effect of weather on their pain for millennia, chronic pain sufferers finally have a large-scale scientific study to back up their claims. Its findings reveal that, at least in the United Kingdom where the research was conducted, days with higher pain levels correspond with lower pressure and its attendant adverse weather conditions, including higher humidity, precipitation and increased wind. Conversely, low pain days where fewer experience a pain event are dominated by higher pressure with weaker winds and drier air.

In “Weather Patterns Associated with Pain in Chronic-Pain Sufferers,” recently published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, author David Schultz of the University of Manchester’s Centre for Atmospheric Sciences and Centre for Crisis Studies and Mitigation, along with colleagues, detail their 15-month smartphone study, “Cloudy with a Chance of Pain.” The UK-wide initiative involved more than 10,000 participants suffering from chronic pain who used a special phone app daily to answer 10 questions about their level of pain, related symptoms, mood and physical activity, and other questions about their pain. GPS sensors in their phones enabled concurrent tracking of their location’s average weather conditions, pairing observations with their responses for analysis.

Using an epidemiological method to confine comparisons to individual participants, their research found on any given day that 16 percent of chronic-pain sufferers experience a pain event at least one level above their typical pain level, using a 5-point scale: “no pain,” “mild pain,” “moderate pain,” “severe pain,” and “very severe pain.” This increased to 23 percent on high pain days, and dropped to 10 percent on low pain days. Weather patterns, they found, explain part of the changes, modulating pain in people. It remains to be determined who suffers most, but Schultz et al. have confidence in the findings of the largest and longest-term study of its kind on the weather–chronic pain relationship.

“This result confirms the anecdotal evidence from the three-quarters of those who suffer from chronic pain who say that their pain levels are related to poor weather,” Schultz says in a video he produced to discuss the topic and the study’s findings. [See below.]

He notes that because prior research had inconsistent results and disagreement over findings, reactions to their research have been mixed, with both high praise and disdain.

“It’s perhaps not surprising that the public reaction to our study is one of two things: depending on who you listen to, people either thank us for showing what they already knew and giving support to their strongly held beliefs, or they say it was a waste of time and money because they already knew that poor weather was associated with their pain.”

By the very nature of the smartphone survey, Schultz notes that participants had the opportunity to really look at their pain and the conditions accompanying it. And with evidence in hand, the opportunity now exists for scientists to move toward forecasting such conditions in tandem with people’s pain levels to provide understanding in addition to potential welcome relief.

For people who suffer from chronic pain and believe weather influences their daily pain levels, scientists including them in the study and then conclusively demonstrating this relationship on a large scale gives their suffering meaning and validates their beliefs.

“We’ve received so many emails and tweets of support from those who participated telling us how much they appreciate being able to participate in a study like this where they actually felt their contributions were valued and they were contributing to answering a scientific question that was important to them personally.  And, we do value their contributions.”

Kids in Hot Cars: Tragic Misconceptions

Two tragedies last week were reminders of a continuing and underrated weather hazard: people continue to leave children in their parked automobiles, where the heat is ever escalating. The victims in the separate incidents in Oregon and California on June 20 and 21 were both under two years of age.
An average of 37 children each year die from hyperthermia while left alone in automobiles, largely due to persisting misconceptions about the heat dangers of the interior of a car.
For many years now, Jan Null, an AMS Certified Consulting Meteorologist in northern California, has been fighting these misconceptions about the heat danger of leaving children in cars. In addition to his studies, presented at AMS conferences  (e.g., watch one here), Null operates a web site of statistics on child hyperthermia in cars.
Perhaps the first big misconception Null refuted is that conditions outside need to be blisteringly hot. Ordinary warm days are dangerous, too. The outdoor temperatures in last week’s deaths were 80°F and 81°F.
This point has been thoroughly documented in studies by Null as well as others, and was reviewed and refined in a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, by Andrew Grundstein, John Down, and Vernon Meentemeyer.
These studies show that temperatures climb surprisingly fast in the car’s interior. Here’s a table from Grundstein et al.:
It’s also a misconception to think that adults are a good judge of what conditions are tolerable. Null reminds people that children are physically much more responsive to conditions—they heat up two or three times faster than adults.
Because leaving children unattended in cars is illegal in some states, one might think these deaths are a case of bad parents making bad decisions. Yet less than one in five of these hyperthermia deaths is because a parent intentionally left the child in the car to, say, run errands. Null’s statistics show that about 400 (54%) of the 760+ heat stroke deaths since 1998 occur when caregivers forget a child is in the car. Almost 30% of the deaths occur when children climb unattended into the cars by themselves and get locked in.
But perhaps the most insidious misconception is that unfit—or forgetful or distracted or hurried or overworked—parents are the most susceptible to being forgetful about such an important matter.
In an AMS presentation, the University of Georgia’s Castle Williams revealed the perceptions that lead to such mental mistakes. Many parents and caregivers don’t believe that they are capable of leaving a child in a car by mistake. As a result, these parents considered it very unlikely that their child might suffer hyperthermia in a car, even as they recognized that the consequences would be severe. They believed that certain demographics–poor, single, working parents–would be more prone to such mistakes. This mismatch in perception of risk and awareness of consequences creates a communication challenge.
“All parents are at risk for this issue. It can happen to anyone,” Williams noted. (The results from his interviews with parents were later published in the the journal, Injury Prevention). “None of the demographic variables show any kind of relationship of having an increased risk of this occurring.”
How to combat the deadly misconceptions about kids in hot cars? According to Williams, “New messaging should focus on increasing perceived susceptibility to emphasize that every parent and caregiver is equally susceptible to forgetting their child in a hot car.”
Organizations such as Safe Kids Worldwide have begun stepping up efforts to inform people of the risks. And Williams’s study shows parents are paying attention to news reports of incidents on TV and in social media. Perhaps the misconceptions can be dispelled soon.

Policy Symposium Keynote to Focus on Tree-Climate Connnections

by Caitlin Buzzas, AMS Policy Program
The keynote speaker for the 8th Symposium on Policy and Socio-Economic research at the AMS Annual Meeting in January will be author and journalist Jim Robbins. The Montana-based science writer for the New York Times just wrote a book on the connection between trees, forests and our atmosphere, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet.
Robbins’ talk for our meeting (Monday,7 January, 11 a.m., Room 19a) is going to span many different aspects of our annual meeting including public health, climate, and weather. The topic, “The Few Things We Know and the Many Things We Don’t about the Role of Trees and Forests on a Warmer Planet,” could be of interest to just about every topic the symposiums cover.
If you want a preview, check out his TED talk on YouTube, where Robbins’ commitment to the science of trees in climate is explained:

They say that everyone must have a child, write a book and plant a tree before they die. But for the writer and freelance journalist of the New York Times, Jim Robbins, if we just do the last part, we’d already be off to a great start. The author of “The man who planted trees” tells how he became a rooted defender when he observed the devastation of the old growth pine trees on his property in Colorado because of climate change. For him, science still hasn’t studied deep enough about these beings that filer air, stop floods, recover desert areas, purify water, block UV rays and are the basis of medicines as well as decorate the view. Much beyond shade and fresh water.

The 2013 AMS Annual Meeting actually goes a long ways toward fulfilling Robbins’ vision of discovering more about trees in our climate, with dozens of related presentations. At Monday’s poster session (2:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3), for example, Juliane Fry is presenting lab findings that may eventually refine regional climate mitigation policies that rely on tree plantings to produce cooling secondary aerosols. Also, as victims of fire disasters, forests feature prominently in the Weather Impacts of 2012 sessions (Tuesday, 8 January, Ballroom E). Similarly, on Wednesday (2:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3) Anthony Bedel will present a poster on the connection between changing climate and increasing potential for forest fires in the the Southeast, due to thriving fire fuels.
Young scientists are also following this line of work: Sunday’s Student Conference posters (5:30 p.m., Exhibit Hall 3) include a presentation by Zeyuan Chen of Stony Brook on understanding airflow in a cherry grove to better help orchard managers save their trees from bark beetles. Another student, Meredith Dahlstrom of Metropolitan State University in Colorado, presents in the same session on interannual and decadal climate mechanisms related to fluctuations in the prodigious capacities for carbon storage in the Brazilian rainforests.