While most people know what it’s like to deal with the occasional headache, migraines are a drastically different experience. Even though migraines are a very common neurological condition–around 39 million Americans grapple with them–they can be downright debilitating. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says they’re one of the main causes of disability worldwide, and in a study among patients with migraines in the United States, more than half reported severe impairment in activity, the need for bed rest, and reduced work or school productivity due to migraines.
To be clear, a migraine is more than just a “splitting” headache. “Headache refers to any kind of pain in the head or face,” says Thomas Berk, MD, clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone Health Division of Headache Medicine. According to him, there are over 150 different kinds of headaches that are medically categorized based on certain features, including quality of pain (stabbing vs. throbbing, etc.), location, and duration.
A migraine is a particular type of headache, in which one side of the head is usually worse than the other, which is moderate to severe in intensity, and symptoms often include light or sound sensitivity and nausea, Dr. Berk says, adding that they can last anywhere from a few hours to three days. Anna Pace, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Mount Sinai Health, adds that migraines can also be associated with vision changes, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, and neck pain, among other symptoms.
While research suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to migraines, there are triggers that exacerbate attacks, Dr. Berk says. For instance, “neurochemical changes in the brain that then lead to certain symptoms,” says Valentina Popova, MD, clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone Health. And exercise and movement can make them worse, she adds. But what about the weather?
Why is weather a migraine trigger
“Different factors cause different headaches,” says Dr. Berk, adding that weather does have an impact.”Most often it’s related to changes in weather patterns rather than just heat or cold,” he says. For instance, the humidity and change in barometric pressure (air pressure in the atmosphere) can be a common migraine trigger. “The migraine brain is sensitive to all kinds of changes–and the response to change often is a migraine exacerbation.”
Dr. Pace estimates that in over a third of people with migraines, weather pattern changes are a trigger. “Research shows that a change in pressure systems–so when rainstorms come, or high humid states, as well as changes in temperature–can increase the likelihood of headache.” Though it is not completely understood why certain weather conditions can lead to headaches, she says that barometric pressure changes may cause over-excitement of areas of the brain that control pain. “Atmospheric pressure changes may also change the pressure within the sinuses and inner ears which can also lead to the experience of pain.”
People with migraines tend to be more sensitive to bright light, including sunlight, says Sara Crystal, MD, is a Neurologist who currently serves as medical director for Cove, a digital health program that allows patients to access expert care for their migraines. She also mentions that weather changes may affect serotonin levels in the brain, which in turn triggers attacks.
And, unfortunately, weather changes don’t happen in isolation, so they can work in conjunction with other factors to cause pain, says Dr. Pace.”The brain may be more vulnerable to having a migraine attack if there is another trigger happening, such as stress, hormone fluctuations, or inadequate sleep, and so this may explain why some people experience headaches with weather changes and others do not,” Dr. Pace says.
How to prevent migraines caused by the weather
“While you can’t control the weather, you can control other potential triggers,” says Dr. Crystal. “For some people with migraine, it takes a perfect storm–pun intended–to trigger an attack.” So, she says, if you know your particular weather trigger, make sure to optimize other conditions. For example, if you’re worried about a brewing storm, make sure to avoid your known food triggers, get plenty of rest, and practice stress reduction. “And of course, make sure to have your medications on hand.”
Moreover, tracking weather can be helpful. “I recommend using the WeatherX app,” says Dr. Crystal. Once you establish a relationship between weather and your migraines, she says, you can potentially pre-treat with an anti-inflammatory medication.
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