Pain-based weather research leads way for improved quality of life for those with chronic pain. 

From scarves to sunscreen, weather phenomena informs behavior in a myriad of ways, but for those with chronic pain conditions, the implications of a day’s forecast can be far more complicated.

One in five American adults, as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, experience chronic pain. 

In his research, Christopher Elcik, geography and atmospheric sciences lecturer at the University of Georgia, has sought not only to investigate the role of weather phenomena in pain, but to reveal the demand for a weather-based pain forecast that would empower users with predictions on how the climate may influence their conditions. 

Elcik’s 2023 study found that weather can be a pain trigger for 79% of respondents who experience migraines and 64% of respondents with chronic pain-related conditions.  

For Mary Jo Eden, a senior scientific illustration major at the University of Georgia, said weather impacts her quality of life. 

“My POTS is awful in the summer; I am almost nonfunctioning in the summer, at least outdoors,” she said. 

Mary Jo Eden, 21, from Appling, Georgia and fourth-year scientific illustration major at the University of Georgia poses for a portrait on Feb. 14, 2024 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Samantha Hurley)

POTS, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, is the most common form of dysautonomia, an umbrella of conditions defined by impaired regulation of the autonomic nervous system which subconsciously controls heart rate, blood flow, sweating and body temperature. POTS causes reduced blood flow to the heart when standing up, leading those with the condition to feel faint when on their feet for a prolonged period of time. Warm conditions worsen these symptoms. 

“I can go outside in the summer and sometimes only last 10 minutes, and then I’ll pass out from the heat,” said Eden. 

Eden is just one of the 51.6 million Americans experiencing chronic pain as of 2021, according to the CDC. 

For Elcik, witnessing his high school teachers endure migraines and later experiencing his own in college, showed him how disabling migraines can be, later inspiring his research.

Christopher Elcik, 31, geography and atmospheric sciences lecturer at the University of Georgia poses for a portrait on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia, on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Samantha Hurley)

The initial difficulty with this area of research, according to Elcik, was the high volume of contradictory results.  

“There’s so many factors that could affect these things, that it’s really tough to come up with a concrete answer,” Elcik said.

Studies attempting to isolate single weather variables such as temperature or pressure, were inconsistent according to Elcik, inspiring his nuanced approach. 

Rather than attempting to attribute increased pain to individual characteristics, he aimed to establish a relationship between weather features, a weather event with multiple variables happening at once, and pain. 

“The studies that have taken similar approaches and looked at phenomena or features. We have overlapping results, which is something that’s not really seen very often in this topic,” he said. 

Dr. Christopher Elcik stands with one hand in his pocket on the steps of the geography geology building on UGA campus.
Christopher Elcik, 31, geography and atmospheric sciences lecturer at the University of Georgia poses for a portrait on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia on Feb. 27, 2024. (Photo/Samantha Hurley)

Respondents with pain conditions indicated weather to be a trigger of their pain, influencing the intensity and duration of their discomfort. According to the findings, 72% of people with migraines and 66% of people with chronic pain conditions would alter their behavior based on the proposed weather-based pain forecasts. 

Pre-existing weather forecasts help Eden to ask herself, “What activities should I try to do on these days when it’s a little cooler? What activities should I save to do indoors on days when it’s so hot I can’t really go outside? Do I need to ask for help?” 

This information empowers Eden to set up a plan for success and in those warmer months “get the help I need to make it through the week,” she said.  

According to Elcik, “being able to develop that weather-based forecast product that, thanks to the new study, we now know is something that people want … that’s the ultimate goal.”  

Forecasts such as those by AccuWeather already predict daily pain risks for specific conditions such as asthma, arthritis and migraines. Eden suggests that an app or program designed for logging symptoms and creating predictions based on that data and weather could be empowering. 

“It’d be so nice to have some way for where that’s done for me, you know, so I don’t have to sit there and try to solve the puzzle myself,” she said.

According to Elcik’s findings, preventative measures include but are not limited to medication, avoidance of pain triggers, rest, increased fluid intake and ice or heat packs. Eden accommodates her POTS in the summer by keeping her house cool, limiting time outdoors and increased electrolyte intake. 

During her summer abroad in Cortona, Italy, the lack of air conditioning and the hot, dry Tuscan climate heavily impacted Eden’s health. 

“Air conditioning is really important for dealing with heart problems or just anyone that has any type sort of dysautonomia. It’s so important to have a way to cool off when I’m hot,” Eden said. 

Given her sensitivity to heat, Eden expresses concerns about the implications of Climate Change on climates around the world. NASA declared 2023 earth’s hottest year on record. 

Mary Jo Eden, stands with her feet crossed on a sidewalk with the sun illuminating from behind her and onto the fabric of her flowy dress.
Mary Jo Eden, 21, from Appling, Georgia and fourth-year scientific illustration major at the University of Georgia poses for a portrait on Feb. 14, 2024 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Samantha Hurley)

“Out of the research that I’ve personally done, which has been focused on North Carolina, I have found that maritime tropical so very hot, humid, weather types, air masses, those are the ones that I’ve linked the most to pain,” said Elcik. 

While conditions commonly associated with climate change such as warmer temperatures, higher humidity and more moisture in the air, may lead to greater instances of pain, Elcik believes a lot more work has to be done before definitively making that connection. 

“I think the before you can understand how climate change is going to impact us, we have to figure out exactly what weather phenomena are truly being linked to pain,” said Elcik. 

Eden is optimistic that experiences like hers are being represented in research. She noted the relationship between disability and environment has been underrepresented in the past. Looking towards her next steps after graduation, climate is an important factor in choosing her destination. 

Elcik is hopeful for more research studies like his, generating consistent results. Since publishing his work Elcik has received personal thank you notes from people impacted by weather-based pain.

“You’re not just doing it for the sake of research. You’re doing it because it actually affects people,” said Elcik.

Samantha Hurley is a junior journalism major at the University of Georgia. 

 

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