Weather as a Headache and Migraine Trigger

Headache specialists are still unraveling the mysteries of migraine and other headaches. Most believe a combination of factors, from genetics to neurovascular imbalances in the brain, play a role.

But what role could weather play? One leading evolutionary theory is that getting a headache is a protective mechanism against adverse environmental stressors. The theory goes that headache pain would cause someone to seek a safer, more hospitable environment. The fact that changes in weather and extremes in heat and cold cause headache, some experts believe, gives credence to this theory.

 

Weather and Other Migraine Triggers

In a survey by the National Headache Foundation, headache sufferers were given a list of 16 possible triggers. They then were asked to rank them in terms of what commonly brought on their migraines and other headaches. Three out of every four respondents said that weather triggered their headache pain. Specific weather triggers include:

  • Changes in humidity
  • Changes in temperature
  • Storms
  • Extremely dry conditions
  • Dusty environments

Listed below are common environmental triggers for headaches included in the survey and the percentage of people who identified them as triggers. People often have more than one type of trigger for their headaches. How many, if any, of these factors trigger your headaches?

  • Weather or barometric pressure changes: 73%
  • Intense odors: 64%
  • Bright or flickering lights: 59%
  • Smoke: 53%
  • Extreme heat or cold: 38%
  • Altitude changes: 31%
  • High winds: 18%

Most of the participants reported that these environmental triggers have kept them from participating in their normal outdoor activities. They also said they'd stayed away from places likely to have smoke in the air, such as restaurants or bars.

Why Weather Triggers Headaches and Migraine Synptoms

As noted earlier, there is a theory that headaches triggered by extreme weather are a protective, or defensive, response because they lead the person to seek a more hospitable environment.

Experts believe that people who get frequent headaches have a greater sensitivity to changes in the environment. They also have a lower threshold to the pain response. The reason, they suspect, is that people who get migraine headaches have likely inherited this sensitivity.

The survey cited earlier also found that two out of three headache sufferers had not discussed environmental triggers with their doctors. Nearly half of them, though, had been plagued by headaches for more than 20 years.

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How to Cope With Headache and Migraine Triggers

Keeping a headache or migraine diary is the first step toward keeping pain from disrupting your life.

Some people have clear signs that a migraine headache is coming. And they may get these warnings as early as 48 hours before the headache strikes. These early warning signs are called "prodromal," meaning precursory. Possible signs include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Frequent yawning
  • Feeling especially excitable

If headaches plague you, keep a daily headache diary. That way you can look back a day or two before a headache starts for signs of what may have triggered your headache. Record any irritability or other prodromal signs. Also, if you think weather is a factor, record any of the common weather and environmental triggers listed above. Keep a detailed diary for three months to allow the variable patterns of your headaches to show up.

In your headache diary, write the following:

  • Your headache symptoms: where you feel the pain, what the pain feels like, and any other symptoms, such as vomiting or sensitivity to noise, smells, or bright light
  • The time your headache started and ended
  • Any food and beverages you had (common triggers include chocolate, caffeine, and foods with the preservatives MSG and nitrates)
  • Any changes in the weather, such as storms, high winds, or high humidity
  • Any treatment you tried, and whether it helped or made the headache worse

Some experts believe that people link their headaches to weather more than is actually true. That opinion is based on a 2004 study that analyzed patients' perceived headache patterns with actual National Weather Service data.

But those same experts would agree that headache is still somewhat of a mystery. They also point out that headaches are as individual as they are unpredictable. The only way to know for sure if weather is a factor for you is to find out for yourself. And the only way to do that is with a detailed headache diary. You can't change the weather. But you may be better able to plan around it and keep your headaches at bay.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lawrence C. Newman, MD on August 17, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Headache Foundation: "Environmental and Physical Factors."

American Headache Society: "Tools: Headache Diaries."

WebMD Medical News: "Weather Behind Headaches, Sufferers Say."

eMedicine.com: "Pathophysiology and Treatment of Migraine and Related Headache."

National Headache Foundation: "January 2008 Survey: Environmental Triggers and Headache."

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