Health & Wellness

Separating weather forecasts from pain

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Study indicates physical activity, not a weather change, leads to ER visits

Millions of Americans suffer from pain-inducing conditions such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. New research from the University of Georgia shows significant association between warm, tropical air masses and emergency room visits for these conditions.

But not in the way we might think.

The new research by Christopher Elcik, lecturer of geography and atmospheric sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, suggests pain flare-ups are a result of physical activity rather than atmospheric pressure.

The new study was published Aug. 8 in the International Journal of Biometeorology.

People who suffer from chronic pain often report flare-ups based on the weather. Cooperation among doctors and meteorologists has led to the creation of the term meteoropathy, defined as the symptoms or reactions, including pain, that are associated with atmospheric conditions.

“The goal was to find a link between pain and air masses, and do some type of pain forecasting,” said Elcik. “If you take medication early enough, you can reduce some of your symptoms with a lot of these conditions. This could help people and give them a little bit of a warning.”

On these warmer days when the tropical air masses move in, perhaps people are seeking outdoor activities such as golf or any other outdoor sport and that may be leading to increases in pain.” — Christopher Elcik

This study covered the Research Triangle of North Carolina which included Durham, Orange and Wake counties and monitored emergency room visits with a primary diagnosis of fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and general back pain.

“Since we were looking at air masses, we wanted to pick a location that would have a lot of different air masses,” said Elcik. “Some hot humid ones, some cold dry ones. North Carolina is a mid-latitude location, and we consider it to be a battleground between different types of air masses.”

This study spanned seven years with over 80,000 emergency department visits for the pain-inducing conditions. Daily records of emergency department visits from the study region were acquired from the North Carolina Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool, a web-based, public health surveillance system developed and maintained by the Carolina Center for Health Informatics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

The Spatial Synoptic Classification, which characterizes the synoptic meteorological surface characteristics of the location, was used for this study. The Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, North Carolina, was chosen as the base location for synoptic classifications. The KRDU airport is centralized in the study area. Having the base location for synoptic classifications centralized helps ensure that the daily SSC weather types identified are representative of the entire region of interest.

The data showed moist, tropical air masses led to an increase in hospital visits in all the conditions the study analyzed. This also held true in the winter months. An unseasonal air mass in the winter would lead to an increase in pain and more trips to the emergency department.

“We were trying to figure out if there was a physiological reason for this. Is there anything happening in the body that these types of air masses would affect? We came to the conclusion that it may not be physiological but activity based,” said Elcik. “On these warmer days when the tropical air masses move in, perhaps people are seeking outdoor activities such as golf or any other outdoor sport and that may be leading to increases in pain.”

Elcik previously conducted a similar study using the same location but focusing on migraines. He found the same results there.