Scientists: No, You Can’t Actually Feel the Weather in Your Bones

Winter is here, and for much of the country the temperatures are dropping. Many of us talk about feeling the chill in our bones. But a new analysis into whether the weather is something people can “feel” found a surprisingly clear answer: no.

The belief that elderly people in particular can experience “weather pains”—physical sensations like joint, back and muscle stiffness caused by environmental factors like rain—has been around for thousands of years. Yet in the first-ever large-scale review of the evidence, cross-referencing the dates of insurance claims from millions of primary care office visits with data from thousands of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather stations, researchers have shown it’s simply a myth. The results were published in The BMJ.

“We thought we might see something,” lead author Dr. Anupam Jena, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told Newsweek. “It’s just such a widely held belief, we thought there might be a small but detectable increase. But our findings were really pretty uniform.”

Jena and his colleagues looked at recent Medicare records for upwards of 11 million doctors’ office visits by older Americans to determine if rainy spells corresponded to any spikes in relevant healthcare issues according to the medical records. Despite factoring in every variable they could think of, like whether patients might have already been seeing their doctor for other reasons or whether a given week had rain for several days in a row, the data didn’t budge. On dry days, records from 6.39 percent of office visits included reports of pain. On rainy days, 6.35 percent of office visits included reports of pain.

The data was so consistent, Jena said, that even rheumatoid arthritis, a condition frequently linked to the ability to “predict” the weather, didn’t make for any outliers. The belief seems to simply be self-fulfilling. As Jena explained, that doesn’t mean that complaints of weather-related pain shouldn’t be taken seriously by doctors. The pain is real; it’s just the cause that people are imagining.

107277196 An elderly woman with two walking sticks struggles along an ice-covered sidewalk in Berlin on December 3, 2010. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Image

Of course, not everyone goes to the doctor every time they experience pain, and it’s possible that there is some sort of correlation that just never made it into the records. But the sheer scope of the analysis combined with the across-the-board consistency of its findings makes it hard to deny. Jena said that he’d like to follow up on this research by looking at actual laboratory measurements of inflammation in the body, as opposed to just medical records, to see if that revealed anything further, though that data would be harder to come by.

“For now it’s more about the debunking aspect,” Jena said.