Weather Not Linked to Back Pain in Study

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Harvard Medical School
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Weather Not Linked to Back Pain in Study

News Review from Harvard Medical School

July 11, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Weather Not Linked to Back Pain in Study

Does bad weather make your back hurt? Researchers have taken a close look at this question and concluded that the answer is no. The study included nearly 1,000 people. All of them visited primary care clinics because of acute (sudden) low back pain. Researchers looked at weather conditions when the back pain started, as well as a week and a month before. They found no connection between back pain and temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind direction or precipitation. Higher wind speeds and gusts were slightly more likely at the time the pain started than at other times. The journal Arthritis Care & Research published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it July 10.


By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Sudden low back pain is extremely common. It happens to most of us at least once in a lifetime. But why does this occur? Many people blame changes in the weather.

Weather changes are just one of the many opinions about what triggers low back pain and many other types of aches and pains. However, they are just opinions. They are not based on evidence. In fact, very few studies have taken a look at the triggers for low back pain.

Daniel Steffens, a Ph.D. student, and his colleagues at the University of Sydney designed an elegant study to better identify what may be real triggers. They recruited 993 patients with acute low back pain. All had been seen in primary care clinics in Sydney, Australia, during a 1-year period.  

The researchers used the common definition of acute low back pain:

  • Comes on suddenly, over no more than 24 hours
  • Located between the 12th rib (the lowest rib) and the crease of the buttocks
  • Of at least moderate intensity
  • May or may not occur along with pain that goes into one of the legs

These researchers are studying various triggers for low back pain. The current study looks at the relationship to changes in weather. They could not find any links between low back pain and shifts in air temperature, relative humidity, rain, air pressure or wind direction. There may be some link with high wind speed and wind gusts.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Acute low back pain can be extremely painful and frightening. But it almost always will get better with minimal treatment. Often the pain is better in two to three days. But it may take a few weeks.

Acute low back pain rarely needs diagnostic testing, such as a CT scan or MRI. But there are situations when the low back pain might be something more serious. For example: 

  • Back pain with fever
  • Back pain in someone who has cancer
  • Back pain that wakes you from sleep (not just waking up and realizing your back still hurts, but pain that wakes you up)
  • Back pain after severe trauma
  • Back pain with loss of control of urine or stool
  • Back pain with weakness in one or both legs

This report suggests that high winds and wind gusts might set off sudden back pain. So it makes sense, if you are prone to having back problems, to be very careful if you do need to go outside under these conditions. Otherwise, don't let weather change what you do.

If you do have sudden low back pain, do not remain at bed rest for more than one or two days. When lying down, find whatever position is comfortable to help relieve the pain. Personally, I like to lie flat on my back with a couple of pillows underneath my knees. Many people like to lie on their side with knees bent toward the chest and a pillow between the knees.

During those first couple of days, try to get up and slowly move around every few hours. Stand and sit until you become too uncomfortable. Then lie down again. Try to do more each time you get up.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Steffens and his colleagues also asked people what they were doing before the low back pain started.

Using similar analytic tools as reported here, they hope to find evidence-based triggers. For example, these might include having sex, drinking alcohol, doing a physical task or being overly tired. This new analysis is likely to be published within the next few months.

Last updated July 11, 2014

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