If your migraines seem more reliable than the weatherman in predicting storms and more accurate than a thermometer in gauging extreme heat or cold, it's not just in your head, according to Mayo Clinic expert Dr. Jerry W. Swanson. Certain weather changes really do cause migraine headaches.
"Weather changes may cause imbalances in brain chemicals, including serotonin, which can prompt a migraine," he said. "Weather-related triggers also may worsen a headache caused by other triggers."
A short list of weather-related migraine triggers: Bright sunlight, extreme heat or cold, sun glare, high humidity, dry air and windy or stormy weather.
Barometric pressure − the amount of force that is being applied to your body from the air − may be another factor, noted the American Migraine Foundation, citing a study that examined headache sufferers and falling barometric pressure during a typhoon in Japan. The study found that 75 percent of those with migraines had attacks associated with the drop in barometric pressure, compared with 20 percent of people experiencing a tension headache in the same period.
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And soaring temperatures are another documented cause of migraines, David Dodick, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, told The New York Times blog. He cited a study that found a 7.5 percent increased risk of emergency department visits for severe headaches for every 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in temperature.
The stats don't mean migraine sufferers are doomed to another attack merely because thunderstorms or scorching temps are predicted, however. According to the AMF, a single trigger like a storm may not be able to start a migraine attack alone unless it's dramatic. "The weather change may only 'cause' a migraine attack if it is able to add together with another trigger, like a meal containing monosodium glutamate or a glass of red wine," noted the organization. Other contributing causes that can assist a weather event in causing a migraine include fatigue, stress or sleep deprivation.
And not all migraine sufferers are equally weather-sensitive, according to the AMF. "Among those that are, some may be sensitive to one weather pattern and others may be sensitive to another one," it noted. "Additionally, there may be a time delay of a number of hours before the migraine attack follows the trigger."
There are also ways to avoid a migraine, or to minimize it, even in the face of extreme weather changes or in an area known for intense shifts in barometric pressure.
MigraineX, for example, is a new approach that involves a reusable earplug device touted to help a person experience a more gradual change in barometric pressure, along with an app that warns of impending barometric changes in time for a migraine sufferer to insert the device.
The Mayo Clinic also recommended taking these steps to minimize the weather change/headache connection:
- Keep a headache diary, listing each migraine, when it happened, how long it lasted and what could have caused it. This can help you determine if you have specific weather triggers.
- Monitor weather changes to avoid the triggers when you can, staying indoors during very cold or windy weather, for example.
- Take migraine meds at the first sign of a migraine, since a full-blown attack may take several hours to develop.
- Reduce the number and severity of all migraines, not just those triggered by weather incidents, by eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, getting ample sleep and controlling stress levels.
Is the weather to blame for your headache?
To discover the difference between a migraine headache and a tension or sinus headache, here's how to determine the difference, according to Health:
Tension headaches are by far the most common, affecting about 90 percent of the population at some time. Tightness of muscles in the scalp and in the back of the neck is usually the cause; dull pressure or a tightness in a band around the head can also be to blame. Fatigue or stress causes this type of headache's mild to moderate pain.
Sinus headaches, in contrast, are surprisingly rare and most people who think they're suffering a sinus headache actually have a migraine, which may involve a runny nose or teary eyes. Symptoms of a genuine sinus headache do involve mild to severe pain around the nose and eyes, usually with a runny nose and often with a fever. Acute sinus infections trigger this type of headache.
Migraine headaches are easily mistaken for the other two headaches, but a migraine is a neurological condition that involves throbbing pain; sensitivity to light, sounds and smells; nausea and other symptoms. Migraines are the result of an overreactive "switch" in the brain stem that causes moderate to severe pain.