Understanding weather-related migraines

In Canada, three million-plus women and one million-plus men suffer from migraine headaches. It is now widely recognized that certain weather conditions may act as triggers for these debilitating headaches.

Woman with a migraine headache

What is a migraine?

According to Canadian Health, which is published by the Canadian Medical Association, “Migraine is far more complex than an ordinary headache; its tentacles reach out to many other systems, causing disturbances in mental function, vision, hearing, smell, motion and the gastrointestinal tract.” Some sufferers also experience muscular pain. Common migraine symptoms include pain on one side of the head or behind one eye, nausea and/or vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, neck pain and an inability to concentrate. Many other symptoms are reported as well.

How can weather trigger a migraine?

The correlation between weather and migraines was first studied in depth in Germany and has been followed up in North America, but the bottom line is that no one has a definitive answer. Low barometric pressure plays a role, but as explained in Headache Journal, “Since a change in pressure is accompanied by changes in temperature, wind, humidity, precipitation and rain, clinical studies on weather are complicated to do, as it is hard to delineate the effect of each weather component.” Mayo Clinic neurologist Dr. Jerry W. Swanson, M.D. reports that people who suffer migraines tend to be sensitive to changes in weather and lists the following as potential environmental triggers:

  • Bright sunlight
  • Hot or cold temperatures
  • High humidity
  • Dry air
  • Windy or stormy weather
  • Changes in barometric pressure

Weather triggers may also worsen a headache brought on by another cause. For some people, two or more triggers occurring simultaneously may produce a migraine.

Can weather-related migraines be prevented?

Weather cannot be controlled by people, but it can be predicted. However, since it is also difficult to pinpoint exactly which weather conditions might trigger a headache, those who experience weather-related headaches are encouraged to keep a migraine “diary” with the aim of identifying recurring triggers, take migraine medication at the first sign of a headache and work to reduce instances of co-triggers by getting enough sleep, eating right, etc. Those who suffer from weather-related migraines will also benefit from working to keep track of weather changes. Mediclim.com sends its subscribers email “warnings” 24 hours before a change in the weather is expected to exacerbate their symptoms, providing them with a window of opportunity to prepare by either taking preventative medicine, avoiding the outdoors or minimizing the potential to aggravate the situation with other triggers, like avoiding alcoholic beverages, for example. Dr. John Bart, the site’s co-founder, points out, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.”

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