One of the most common migraine triggers is the weather. In a recent study, 75% of sufferers reported headaches brought on by changes in atmospheric pressure. It’s a simple matter to avoid something like red wine if you know this is one of your personal triggers, but what can you do about headaches brought on by fluctuations in barometric pressure?
The first step is to understand what the term means, and how it can potentially affect you.
What is Barometric Pressure?
Barometric pressure is a combination of the air and water pressure in the atmosphere, which changes according to the prevailing weather conditions. Air pressure refers to the force exerted by the weight of air overhead, which explains why high altitudes tend to have a low air pressure. Water pressure refers to the same thing, which is why deep-sea divers feel an increase in pressure the deeper they dive, caused by the weight of the water.
Existing in either a low or a high level of pressure isn’t the main issue among migraine sufferers. What seems to trigger the pain for most people is a change in air pressure. Some people have learned to predict the weather according to how they feel, even sensing the arrival of storms, for instance.
Weather forecasters often speak of weather fronts, and these refer to changes in barometric pressure. Red or blue bars on the weather map on TV usually indicate these approaching changes. Blue indicates low pressure, with red indicating high-pressure fronts.
- Low or falling barometric pressure is associated with deteriorating weather conditions or storms approaching. Air pressure can fall quickly, and migraine sufferers frequently detect this rapid change.
- High or rising barometric pressure signals better weather, as well as rising temperatures that could lead to an increase in humidity levels. High humidity is a common migraine trigger.
How Barometric Pressure Affects Migraine Sufferers
As with many aspects of migraines, there’s no single, definitive explanation of exactly what causes barometric pressure headaches, although there are various suggestions:
- A change in oxygen levels caused by high or low humidity. High humidity saturates the air with moisture, reducing oxygen levels and making it harder for the patient's brain to receive the correct amount of oxygen to function properly. Blood vessels may expand or contract to compensate, potentially compressing nerve fibers.
- Changes in electrical charges in the atmosphere. Positive ionization, for instance, is linked to the release of serotonin.
- Brainstem migraine receptors triggered by changing pressure on brain fluid.
- Pressure differences in air trapped in the inner ear or in blocked nasal cavities, similar to sinus headaches.
How to Cope with Barometric Pressure Headaches
Sometimes just knowing that a headache is on the way can help you ward off the main symptoms by taking medication early in the cycle. Headaches brought on by changes in the atmosphere are no different, although they may be harder to deal with because you know there’s no avoiding it. You can’t change the weather, after all. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, however. Here are a few things you can do:
- Monitor the weather. You could install weather apps on your smartphone or tablet and pay attention to approaching weather fronts that could provoke an attack.
- Keep a weather/migraine diary. If you’re unsure to what extent changes in air pressure affect your migraines, keeping track of episodes and noting the weather conditions can help you identify common patterns. A good barometer could help if you want to record the actual air pressure, or fluctuations in pressure that add up to migraine conditions. There is even a migraine barometer that alerts you to falling or rising pressure once you figure out what your individual pattern is and program it accordingly.
- Control indoor humidity levels. Too high a level of humidity in your home is not only bad for furnishings and decor (it promotes mold growth), but it’s also bad for your (and your family's) health. The humidity can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from respiratory infections to allergies and headaches. Dehumidifiers help to regulate humidity levels in the home.
- Avoid known trigger situations, such as going out in high winds or extreme heat or cold, if possible. Often it’s not convenient to stay indoors no matter what the weather is doing, but if you can avoid it, you should.
- Stay hydrated. Hot, humid weather can lead to heat exhaustion and dehydration, both of which can lead to headaches. Sip water at regular intervals, remembering that by the time you feel thirsty you’re already dehydrated.
Even in those people who don’t suffer from migraine headaches, changes in air pressure can provoke a ‘heady’ feeling which is uncomfortable. When those changes become a migraine trigger, recognizing the symptoms and taking appropriate action can help minimize pain levels and the duration of the headache.