Long before meteorologists began making weather forecasts, migraineurs were likely able to predict coming storms with unhappy accuracy. This is because barometric pressure makes itself felt well ahead of time, foretelling the arrival of thunderstorms and other weather patterns that have an effect on migraine patients.
How it Works
Barometric pressure is the method scientists use to measure the atmospheric pressure or weight of the air where it presses on the surface of the earth. This affects the weather by causing changes to the way air currents move around the earth. A device called a barometer is used to identify the pressure, and the barometric reading is helpful in forecasting incoming weather changes. High barometric pressure is usually linked to clear, sunny weather, while low pressure provides the perfect conditions for clouds and moisture to develop.
Why it Causes Headaches
Several theories exist as to why drops in barometric pressure cause migraines, but the truth is there’s no conclusive evidence to provide an accepted answer. When the barometric reading indicates low pressure, it means the weight of the air pressing inwards from the atmosphere is lighter than it could be. Our sinuses are filled with air, which creates outward pressure that is countered by the atmospheric pressure. If the inward pressure and the outward pressure are unevenly matched, the pressure inside the sinuses causes them to become distended, particularly in patients with congestion or a blocked nose.
In some instances, the change in pressure simply happens at the same time as other weather-related triggers, including:
- Changes in the weather, which cause an imbalance in brain chemicals such as serotonin, a “feel-good” compound. This results in changes in the patient’s mental state, and can bring on a migraine.
- Bright, sunny conditions, which can increase the amount of glare and activate a sensitivity to light that many migraineurs suffer with.
- Hot, dry conditions that increase the risk of dehydration, which is a common (but preventable) migraine trigger.
- Lightning during storms that gives off electromagnetic waves, and rain that can cause the emission of spores from plants and trigger an allergic reaction.
Types of Barometric Headaches
Barometric pressure causes headaches in non-migraine sufferers as well as migraine patients. These are typically experienced bilaterally, meaning on both sides of the head simultaneously. A barometric pressure migraine, however, is more frequently felt just on one side of the head, although both sides can be affected. A migraine triggered by barometric pressure changes usually lasts an average of 24 hours, although it can run up to 72 hours in some instances.
Symptoms of Barometric Pressure Migraines
Apart from the debilitating and severe pain, symptoms of a barometric migraine include:
- nausea and stomach pains, which are sometimes accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea
- pain around one or both temples, which can also affect the eyes, ears, forehead or back of the head
- feelings of depression and changes in perception of things
- increased sensitivity to light or the development of an aura, which may last for several hours
- numbness and tingling in the face, head and neck, which can also spread to the arms and legs
- waves of pain that throb in time with the patient’s heartbeat
When to Expect a Barometric Pressure Migraine
Studies show that approximately 12 percent of the population suffers from migraine headaches, and weather conditions are one of the top three most common triggers. Patients with barometric sensitivity report that the pain often begins well ahead of the changing weather patterns. This means you could develop a headache when the weather seems perfect, and only discover the reason a day or two later when the clouds finally move in.
How to Handle a Barometric Migraine
It makes sense that your first step in managing this type of migraine is to know when the barometric pressure is changing, so investing in a small barometer for your home can help alert you ahead of time. Alternatively, for $1.99 you can download a Barometer App for iPhone, which will tell you the barometric pressure in your specific location at any given point. It works in conjunction with your satellite location, so the range isn’t very wide.
Some other ways you can reduce the severity of a barometric headache are:
- Watch the weather: It’s not enough to just look through the window. You’ll need to follow the weather predictions in detail, particularly the next two to three days.
- Stay hydrated: Avoid the effects of increased humidity that typically accompany cloud build-up by keeping up your water consumption.
- Avoid glare: Staying indoors might not help you avoid changes in barometric pressure, but it will enable you to manage your exposure to glare, extreme temperatures and humidity. Investing in a good pair of tinted glasses also helps block sunlight outdoors and bright, fluorescent lights indoors.
- Watch Your Triggers: When you know a low pressure period is coming, keep a close eye on any other of your particular triggers, such as foods and drinks that might affect your migraines. It’s possible to get away with having these occasionally, but try to avoid combining them with a dip on the barometer.
The worst-case scenario is if you live in an area where regular drops in pressure occur, you may have to consider relocating to a more temperate climate. Areas such as the humid north west have a much higher likelihood of being a migraine “hot spot” than most places in California or Texas, for example. Managing barometric migraines is possible with a combination of vigilance and care.