Thank goodness the nights are finally getting shorter (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere). Unless you’re a duck, the wet and gloomy weather is pretty miserable. The imminent spring sunshine is especially good news for those of us who suffer with aching joints. Speak to anyone who has arthritis and there’s a good chance they will say their joints ache more when a storm is looming. Many experts think that changes in air pressure affect the way we feel pain; yet despite this being a widely held belief, there’s no real proof that it’s actually real. One researcher, however, is using smartphone technology to discover whether your aunt really is right when she says, “There’s a storm coming – I feel it in my bones”. And what’s more, if you own a mobile phone and experience long-standing pain then you too can be a medical science detective.
Dr Will Dixon, a UK professor who specialises in medical statistics, recently launched a smartphone app called ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Pain’. It is available free of charge to anyone aged over 17 in the UK who has suffered with pain for at least three months. Every day for six months you are tasked with inputting your symptoms – including pain, fatigue and general wellbeing – on a five-point scale. Your location and the local weather conditions are automatically recorded, and you can even submit your own ideas about what might be triggering a flare in pain. Each user is also sent a personalised report to help them learn more about their symptoms and health.
The project has been running for a few weeks and the anonymised data is being crunched right now. By analysing the results from thousands of people’s suffering, Dr Dixon hopes to find the truth behind a belief that has existed for at least 2,500 years. He follows in the footsteps of other scientists who have explored similar ancient beliefs, such as that of ‘lunacy’: surveys have shown that about half of us believe crime and mental illness peak during a full moon – and Accident and Emergency staff are particularly likely to say their work gets busier on werewolf nights. But the actual science shows that it isn’t real: workers merely forget all the full moon evenings when not much happens.
So given that two thirds of arthritis sufferers believe weather affects their symptoms (and even the Arthritis Foundation have an online ‘joint pain weather forecast’), it seems likely that many people will stick to their convictions regardless of what Dr Dixon discovers. That said, it’s going to take some time before he gets his final conclusions – and seeing how unreliable some weather Office forecasts have been of late, I’d be inclined to take a chance and ask my aunt when the next storm is on the way…