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Bring me sunshine

Will Dixon, Professor of Digital Epidemiology in the University’s School of Biological Sciences.

“We can be so content, if we gather little sunbeams,” sang Morecambe and Wise in their famed theme tune in the 70s. Taking up the refrain in 2016 are 12,000 citizen scientists in one of the largest crowd-sourced research projects in the UK. The results so far are indeed bringing sunshine to chronic pain sufferers.

As the dark and dreary days close in this winter, we all long for the sun again – some more than most, according to Will Dixon, Professor of Digital Epidemiology in the University’s School of Biological Sciences.

Taking a cue from Hippocrates himself, Will posed a deceptively simple question – does weather affect pain, and how? In typically Manchester fashion, he applied some original thinking – and the Cloudy with a Chance of Pain project was underway.

“How many times have we heard or said ‘I feel it in my bones’ about the cold, the wet and the grey skies? In my work as a rheumatologist, I have seen hundreds of patients with arthritis who have described this association to me,” Will explains.

The project will give chronic pain sufferers the power to tame weather

“For thousands of people with chronic pain, this appears to be a very real and debilitating issue.

“Armed with an innovative smartphone app, participants are asked to report their symptoms once a day, while the smartphone’s GPS automatically collects the weather conditions in their local area.

“My team and I are keen to recruit as many citizen scientists as possible to help us answer this age-old question. It is only with periods of sustained data entry from lots of participants that we will be able to get to the bottom of this long-standing puzzle.”

The power to tame the weather

Proving – or disproving – old wives’ tales wasn’t the point of the project. By demonstrating a link between specific aspects of the weather and pain, Will and his team could help guide behavioural changes and open opportunities for understanding the causes and determinants of pain, perhaps even leading to new treatment regimes in the future.

“The Cloudy project has a very real purpose at its heart – by proving the link between certain weather conditions and pain among chronic pain sufferers, and given we can forecast the weather, we might be able to generate pain forecasts. This might allow people living with chronic pain to plan their activities around likely future patterns of pain. Furthermore, once we understand how the weather influences pain, other researchers might discover how such pain pathways work and develop new interventions.”

Will concludes: “Cloudy with A Chance of Pain – thanks to the 12,000 volunteers working on the project – will give chronic pain sufferers the power to tame weather.”

At the halfway stage the research team reviewed the interim data, looking specifically at data sets collected from participants in three cities across the UK.

In each of the sample cities, as the number of sunny days and temperature increased from February to April, the amount of time spent in severe pain decreased. However, the amount of time spent in severe pain increased again in June when the weather was warmer still, yet was wetter and there were fewer hours of sunshine.

Once the project is complete in Spring 2017, chronic pain sufferers may be able to join in the chorus:Let your arms be as warm as the sun from up above,Bring me fun, bring me sunshine, bring me love.

Turning chronic pain sufferers into citizen scientists…

The Cloudy with a Chance of Pain app transforms chronic pain sufferers into citizen scientists, who are not only helping our researchers discover if the weather influences pain, but also turning detective themselves, diving deep into the data and helping the team to spot the patterns.

The patients track their symptoms each day for up to six months using the app. Our research team matches all the reports against weather reports for the areas where the patients live, and then creates 2D and 3D maps of the data submitted.

The app’s users can examine these maps to see whether or not they can spot an association, and then submit their thoughts and hypotheses. The app also includes a blog featuring stories from other chronic pain sufferers, talking about how they try to overcome their difficulties, along with other articles and information. A piece about Manchester-based artist Jessica Owen includes images of her ‘northern-scapes’ inspired by the natural world – a beautiful example of how good outcomes can result from bad weather.

“If you’re affected by chronic pain, this is your chance to do something personally – and easily – to lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of pain,” says Professor Dixon.

“I’m passionate about bringing together the worlds of clinical practice and observational research, or epidemiology. If the information can be collected once in the right way, and shared with appropriate permissions with the right people, then the whole healthcare system can allow us to discover new breakthroughs with great efficiency.”

For more information visit the project website at:

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