The Carousel of Progress: Lumbago and Predicting Weather

Without fail, every twenty minutes or so,
John Progress insists that the clothes on the line are safe from rain because his lumbago
isn’t acting up. Besides it’s NOT going to rain today. My lumbago isn’t acting up. (Thunder) Boy look at it come down! Growing up, I didn’t know what lumbago was. It sounded like an Italian pasta dish, or
maybe a 1970’s era station wagon. But neither of those made sense in the context
of the Carousel of Progress. Without knowing what it was or how it acts
up, or how either would have anything to do with the rain, I decided to find out. So let’s look at the history and quirks
of lumbago. To offer a somewhat generalized and short
answer, lumbago is lower back pain. And in an interesting way, that generalized
answer is probably the best answer, because while it was once a catch-all term for any
kind of lower back pain, the definition started to shrink as the field of medicine improved
and we started to learn all of the specific and different ways a person could experience
pain in that area. Lumbago, as a term, is old. Like, really old. We’re talking 1,800 to 2,000 years old. One of the more commonly cited sources was
a man named Sextus Pompeius Festus. He was a second century Roman grammarian which,
to put simply, meant that he taught grammar or “the correct way of speaking”. Festus, during his career, wrote an abridged
version of an earlier work called “De verborum significatu” or “On The Meaning of Words”. It was a 40 volume Latin dictionary written
by a man named Marcus Verrius Flaccus. That abridged version Festus wrote was 20
books long, which makes me wonder if Fetus really knew what an abridgement was. I mean I get that 20 books is less than 40
books, but it’s still 20 books. Come on Festus! While writing it, he took the liberty to pull
out a few words that had already grown obsolete and threw in a few words that he felt were
missing. His version contained the word lumbago, which
was defined as “vitium et debilitas lumborum” or “a defective condition and weakness of
the loins.” Now was that added in his version of the work
or was it part of the original? That’s hard to say, since the original work
doesn’t exist anymore. We have nothing to compare it to. Eventually in the 8th century a historian
named Paulus Diaconus further abridged Festus’ not-so-abridged version, and then later in
the 16th century Diaconus’ work was discovered and published. And so, lumbago survived on as a term and
eventually worked its way into the medical lexicon. It evolved some, and by the early 19th century
lumbago was defined as “pain or rheumatism in the loins.” As wild as it sounds today, it took some time
before people began to realize and accept that such back pain was caused by physical
trauma to the back. Like many ailments, there was a belief that
it was caused by forces outside of their control and unrelated to the actions they took. It would take the industrial revolution, particularly
the spread of railroads, and the unfortunate spike in work related injuries that followed
to finally paint the picture that too much stress and injury on the back could cause
lumbago. And even then, that didn’t stop others from
claiming that there were different causes. Here’s a kidney pill ad that claimed that
the prevalence of lumbago amongst firefighters was caused by how wet they’d get on the
job. But hey, don’t worry firefighters. Take those kidney pills and you’ll be back in action in no time! Alright, but about about all that rain nonsense. How would John use his back pain to predict
the weather? Well, the legend has less to do with the rain
itself, but instead the drop barometric pressure that comes along right before it rains. Many believe that such a drop causes the back
pain to flare up, creating this supposed super power to know when the weather is about to
turn. So is it true? Well, probably not, but the legend still persists
to this day. Multiple studies have been done to try and
get to the bottom of the myth, with results pointing in both directions. In 2007 a study published in the American
Journal of Medicine found that among 200 patients, knee pain was reported to increase when barometric
pressure increased. Now, 200 patients is a pretty small sample
size, but if we accept these results, it actually lines up with John Progress and what he has
to say. This study linked the pain increase to an
increase in barometric pressure, but typically the barometric pressure decreases before it
rains. So it would make perfect sense that his lumbago
wouldn’t act up right before the storm. In 2014 the American College of Rheumatology
published a study that concluded that there was no connection between weather conditions
and musculoskeletal pain. Also musculoskeletal sounds like a villain in a comic book. A few years later a 2017 Harvard study, perhaps
the largest on the subject by tracking 1.5 million patients over four years, also concluded
that local rain didn’t impact joint or muscle pain. But even that study concedes that there still
might be an association, since they just tracked doctor visits and weather, and realistically
most people aren’t going to go to the doctor for some back pain they’re used to. The study, as well as others, mentions that
“the persistence of this belief may reflect the tendency of people to perceive patterns
where none exist.” They might remember the times that their back
pain lined up with the rain and forget the times it didn’t. Or they might know rain is on the way and
end up paying more attention to what they feel in their back. It could also be possible that perhaps some
specific types of back pain are more sensitive to those changes than others. Ultimately the jury is still out. John Progress’ lumbago line is perfect. The Carousel of Progress was built with the
intention of capturing a snapshot of what American life was like throughout the 20th
century, and it did. People suffered from back pain, and they called
it lumbago, and they were often raised to believe that it would flare up before it rained. It was lore that has lived on, so much so
that even today we don’t fully know for sure how true it is or isn’t. I guess except in this case. In this case we know that John was 100% wrong.

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