Does the weather report often have you worried you’ll see a migraine in your forecast? Whether it’s an approaching thunderstorm or even a bright sunny day — either one can leave you with a pounding headache.
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Headache and facial pain specialist Emad Estemalik, MD, talks about how weather can cause a barometric pressure headache or migraine and provides tips on how to keep them at bay.
The difference between headaches and migraines
“Many think migraines are just really bad headaches, which is not altogether true,” Dr. Estemalik says. “Headaches and migraines can have different causes.”
Headaches of any level of pain can be symptoms of a migraine attack, but a migraine is actually a neurological disease or brain imbalance that causes a lot of other symptoms in addition to headaches.
These include sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting, stomach upset, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, dizziness, blurred vision, numbness, tingling or weakness in rare cases.
Migraine episodes result from different signals interacting with your brain, blood vessels and surrounding nerves, which cause any of the symptoms above. During a migraine headache in particular, specific nerves of your blood vessels are activated and send pain signals to your brain.
What is a barometric pressure headache?
Dr. Estemalik says that using the term “barometric pressure headache” might be misleading. A lot of people who have allergies just assume they have barometric pressure headaches or sinus headaches.
“A lot of patients who have had sinus issues all their lives actually have migraines,” he continues. “Once we dig deep into their history and ask the right questions, the interpretation is that they have migraines and have been misdiagnosed with sinus headaches.”
Barometric pressure headache symptoms
While you can get a migraine from other triggers, barometric pressure can also aggravate your symptoms.
In addition to typical migraine symptoms like nausea, vomiting and light and sound sensitivity, those who have a migraine triggered by barometric pressure may experience the following:
- Facial discomfort or pain around their sinuses.
- Post-nasal drip.
- Teary eyes.
“Those who get migraines with aura will have visual and sensory changes,” says Dr. Estemalik. “All these symptoms you wouldn’t typically see in people who just have sinus-related issues or allergy symptoms.”
Why do barometric changes cause headaches?
Research shows that changes in weather patterns are tied to changes in barometric pressure and temperature, and in turn, this can be associated with the onset of mild to severe headaches.
“For some people, it’s a fall in barometric pressure, for others, it could be a quick rise in temperature,” says Dr. Estemalik. “Either way, when these pressure changes occur, most commonly during a storm, a headache can be triggered.”
For what we consider to be the effect of weather on migraines, we’re most likely talking about how weather can contribute to the headache part of a migraine episode.
During a storm, cold and warm air mix to create variations in barometric (or air) pressure. This also is how wind, rain and thunderstorms are created. Barometric pressure is also known as the atmospheric pressure being applied against a given area — and in this case, that “area” is you.
Because your nasal and sinus cavities are air channels, any change in that pressure, especially a fall in barometric pressure, affects those areas. This forces fluid into tissues and can cause a disruption in fluid balance.
Some researchers also think the barometric change may affect the pressure on your brain and how the way your brain blocks or doesn’t block pain.
Ways to keep barometric pressure headaches at bay
“Weather is certainly not the only reason we get headaches. Stress, specific over-the-counter medicines like analgesics or pain killers, hormonal triggers and certain disorders related to sleep for example may also be causes,” Dr. Estemalik explains. “And while you can’t control the weather, you can take steps to minimize your risk, severity and treatment of a headache or migraine attack by following some best practices.”
- Avoid other triggers when the weather is bad. Stay away from foods that cause migraines, like those that contain caffeine, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates and you’ll remove one other trigger factor from the mix.
- Keep rescue medications handy. Discuss these medications with your doctor. If you haven’t tried rescue medications before, ask your doctor what’s available. If you know certain drugs work for you, make sure your prescriptions are up to date to have them at the ready.
- Ask about preventive options. If you go through an especially bad period of migraines, your doctor may want to try medications or other treatments designed to keep migraines at bay before they happen. Sleep deprivation or other sleep issues for example can contribute to a higher frequency of headaches, so it’s important for you to get adequate sleep each night. Too much sleep can also trigger a migraine, so sleeping in on your days off may also provoke a headache.
- Manage your stress. As barometric pressure falls, people who suffer from migraine headaches will often sense it and become stressed. Stress hormones also can provoke a headache. Managing stress through exercise, lifestyle changes, deep breathing or relaxation techniques will help ward it off.
- Drink more water. Fluid shifts in blood vessels surrounding your brain can cause a headache, so it’s important to stay hydrated. “Drink lots of water, especially before you go outside and in warmer weather,” Dr. Estemalik advises. “On a hot 90-degree humid day, you can lose up to a liter of fluid an hour, so you really have to maintain your fluid balance.”
- Wear sunglasses. Besides storms, bright light and glare from a sunny day or light flickering through trees while someone is driving can also trigger a migraine headache.
Natural remedies for barometric pressure headaches
Curious if there are any natural remedies you can try? Dr. Estemalik says there are three over-the-counter supplements that he recommends:
- Magnesium oxide. For some people, increasing magnesium prior to a weather change may help limit or prevent a migraine, too. Try eating more dark leafy greens, fish, soybeans, avocado and bananas, which are good natural sources of magnesium.
- Vitamin B2. Taking this vitamin has been shown to reduce the frequency and duration of migraines. Some foods that have vitamin B2 are milk, meat, eggs, nuts, enriched flour and green vegetables.
- Coenzyme Q10. “This is actually a supplement that the cardiologists use a lot because it’s really good for the heart,” he explains, “but it also plays a role in reducing migraine frequency.”
Though you can’t control when it rains or when temperatures spike or fall, you can take steps to manage and even prevent your migraines.
“If you seem prone to migraine headaches or if they are disrupting your life, be sure to talk to your doctor,” Dr. Estemalik says. “They will work with you to identify triggers as well as the best treatments.”