Barometric and other Weather Headaches
When someone talks of weather sensitivity, the first thing that springs to mind is headache or migraine. The two conditions differ in their origin. Headache is the symptom of something else: substance abuse, tension, stress or an underlying medical condition. Migraine is a medical condition by itself and is the cause of migraine headache.
The hustle and bustle of modern life stretches our senses to the limits. Work becomes more and more competitive. Constant noise drowns out a ‘quiet’ moment. Add to it an excess of substances such as alcohol, nicotine or caffeine and it is no wonder that millions suffer from headache daily. It is one of the most common medical problems in today’s world.
Everyone has a headache at one time or another: ‘Not tonight darling, I’ve got a headache.’ This is a phrase for so many jokes. But the pain of a headache is quite often incapacitating and nothing to laugh about. More than half the patients with tension-type headaches report moderate to severe impairments of their social and work activities. The number of people suffering from headache is unclear because aggressive advertising by pharmaceutical companies and easy access to over-the-counter drugs persuade many sufferers to treat themselves. The estimated occurrence in populations of developed countries ranges from 30% to 80%.
Headaches are often dismissed as trivial – after all, you can’t die from headache. Yet they are the symptoms of a cause. Perhaps it is just your lifestyle, but the pain can also be a warning sign of more serious medical conditions.
There is a multitude of headache types. Some of these are:
- Tension-type headache. It is the most common type and mainly caused by stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety.
- Sinus headache. As the name suggests, sinus irritations or infections cause this headache.
- Eyestrain headaches – a modern type of headache due to long periods of concentrated focusing, such as computer work or reading.
- Secondary headache. This is the symptom of an underlying disorder.
- Neuralgia – caused by irritated nerves.
- Substance abuse headache. Overindulgence in alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or other drugs often cause the ‘hangover’ effect.
Migraine symptoms are more than a headache. It is a major symptom of a medical condition with strong and pulsating pain, generally on one side of the head. Nausea, vomiting, depression, and light and sound sensitivity quite often accompany the pain. A migraine attack can last for several hours or days and return periodically. An aura, either a visual disturbance or a feeling of numbness in the hands, arms and face, precedes a migraine attack in some patients.
For years, the medical profession have believed that blood flow changes in the brain are the cause of migraine headache. A trigger causes the blood vessels to constrict. As a consequence, the reduced blood flow carries less oxygen to the brain.
The body reacts to this danger by widening the blood vessels again. The theory is that the swollen blood vessels pressure certain nerve fibres in the brain. In addition, several chemicals released during this process cause an inflammation and swelling of brain tissue and increase the sensitivity of pain receptors.
Updated imaging technology, however, has allowed researchers to study the blood flow changes during migraine attacks. They have found that these changes are much more complicated than the previous theory suggests. Many scientists now agree that migraine is a result of changes in the brain rather than the blood flow. This prompted others to suggest that migraine is an inherited disease.
Whatever the cause, we know the ailment affects millions of people all over the world. In Western countries, approximately 10 to 18% of the population suffer from migraine attacks. To put it more specifically, about 3 million Canadians and 26 million Americans complain of migraine, of which between 60% and 75% are women.
Weather features prominently as one of many environmental triggers of headache and migraine. A rapid change of single weather elements, such as barometric pressure, temperature, humidity or wind, and a combination of them in changing weather patterns are responsible for the onset of pain. Some scientists believe that a rapid change in weather – and possibly the ionization of the air – can alter the chemical balance in the human body.
Stress, however, is by far the most common trigger of headache and migraine. Surprisingly, weather changes run second and bright sunlight fourth. Headache and migraine sufferers implicate these weather conditions as either triggers or aggravating factors for their pain. Many studies and surveys confirm the ‘imaginations’ of sufferers. There is a relationship between weather factors and the onset of headache or migraine.
The complexity of interacting weather elements makes it hard for researchers to correlate pain with weather patterns. Nevertheless, an approaching weather front with falling air pressure, thickening clouds, rising humidity, temperature fluctuations and strengthening wind appear to trigger or aggravate more migraine attacks than any other weather pattern. In contrast, a dry day with high air pressure and sunshine soothes the symptoms.
Of course, there are always exceptions. For some people, a major trigger of headache and migraine is bright sunlight. Extremes in temperature and humidity appear to have a similarly negative effect on others.
Of all single weather elements, barometric pressure is the strongest factor. The barometric pressure can change significantly during the passing of a weather front. A rapid decrease and increase of 5% is not uncommon. The barometric pressure also fluctuates rapidly when winds buffet buildings.
Previously I mentioned the ability of birds to sense pressure changes. While scientists don’t know exactly how they can, they do have a fair idea. The air inside a sealed cavity or sac, either in the ear or in the body, expands and contracts with the changes in barometric pressure – similar to the function of a barometer or altimeter. The senses of the birds are so finely tuned that they either detect the pressure changes within the cavity or they register the expansion of the sac.
Humans have plenty of cavities as well. Take the sinuses, for example. When the barometric pressure falls the air inside the sinuses expands and the excess amount escapes via small openings into the nasal cavities. If the openings are blocked by mucus, as during a cold, then the pressure inside the sinuses builds up sufficiently to increase sinus pain and trigger headache or migraine. Whether such changes in barometric pressure are enough to also affect blood vessels and fluid-filled cavities in the brain and inner ear, or whether they alter the chemical composition of the body, is under investigation. It is well documented, however, that some weather-sensitive people can ‘feel’ the arrival of a weather front many hours or a day in advance.
So-called ill wind also triggers headaches and migraine amongst many people. The howling wind and the rattling of windows and shutters gets on your nerves. Warm, hot and very dry mountain and desert winds dry out the mucus membranes, irritate the airways and ionize the air. The populations of Alpine nations go crazy with headache and migraine when their föhn wind descends from the mountains, as do North Americans on chinook days, Israelis when the sharav blows and Australians on days with easterlies, westerlies or northerlies, depending on which part of the coast they live.
City life also causes headache, but its stress and noise aren’t the only responsible factors. Add a little ozone, carbon monoxide and other chemicals to the atmosphere and the headache becomes a ‘monster’ headache. On warm and calm days, pollutants collect in the air and hang about the suburbs in stagnant clouds. The chemicals either trigger headache directly or, as is the case with carbon monoxide, reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood to cause headache indirectly. When the brain detects low levels of oxygen it initiates the widening of blood vessels to ensure supply. This dilation exerts pressure on parts of the brain and causes – you guessed it – headache. No wonder city people flock to the country to escape the stress and noise for some peace and quiet.
Studies suggest that environmental electromagnetism influences brain patterns, irritates nerves and changes body chemistry. Not so well researched is the possible negative effect of changes in the earth’s electromagnetic field during solar storms on headache and migraine. More evidence is available, however, to support the theory of ionization as trigger. Ions are particles in the air with either too many negative electrons (negatively charged), or with missing electrons (positively charged). Positive ionization is said to cause the release of excessive serotonin into the bloodstream. The resulting constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the brain triggers the headache or migraine.
The aim of headache or migraine treatment is both to prevent and relieve or stop the painful symptoms. Headache and migraine are the most self-treated disorders. Painkillers, for adults and children, fly from the supermarket shelves like confectioneries. Many people seek medical advice only when the attacks become frequent or unbearable. Treating head pain with medication, however, is not a cure. You and your doctor need to find the source and the trigger of the symptoms.
Once identified, your doctor can target the source and recommend practices to avoid the triggers. Then prevention becomes as easy as avoiding the chocolate that provokes your migraine or performing relaxation techniques to prevent your tension-type headache. Easier said then done – especially when weather is the trigger. To ascertain that weather is the trigger, keep a diary and note the type of weather factors that either trigger or increase your headache pain. Once identified, you can take preventative medication whenever this particular type of weather is part of the weather forecast. Alternatively, follow the recommendations as per Fight Weather Sensitivity in Weather Sensitivity section.