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Migraines and the Weather

Temperature, Humidity and Wind Can Be Triggers

By Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt

Updated February 12, 2009

(LifeWire) - "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Those famous lyrics by Bob Dylan may have been about political radicals but they also ring true for those people whose migraines are triggered by changes in the weather. Temperature, wind and barometric pressure (the overall pressure in the atmosphere) are among the environmental factors that can bring on auras, nausea and debilitating head pain.

Recent studies show that as much as 50% of migraines may be weather-related, which means, unfortunately they cannot be managed as well as those brought on by diet, dehydration and fatigue.

Yet there seems to be a wide margin of error in the way people perceive their triggers. One 2004 study in the journal Headache found that 62.3% of people with migraines thought their episodes were weather-sensitive, but an analysis of headache calendars and weather data suggested that only about 50.6% of the study participants actually had migraines that seemed to be clearly associated with weather patterns.

Researchers are still trying to understand more about the weather patterns or factors that may prompt migraines in susceptible individuals. Some of the factors being studied include:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Changing weather patterns
  • Barometric pressure
  • Wind speed
  • Air ion concentrations (other kinds of particles bound to the oxygen in the air)
The same study previously mentioned also demonstrated that of those participants whose migraine journals revealed weather triggers, nearly 34% were sensitive to absolute temperature and humidity, about 14% were sensitive to changing weather patterns, and nearly 13% were sensitive to barometric pressure.

A Canadian study explored the response of individuals susceptible to migraines during periods of time in which the so-called "Chinook winds" were blowing. This study showed that these warm air winds, which blow into the province of Alberta from the West, increase the frequency of migraines in a subset of people. The study was unable to determine what specific factors actually influenced the onset of headache, because Chinook winds involve a number of weather characteristics.

Still another factor being investigated is called "sferics." This term refers to pulses of electromagnetic radiation that travel from distant weather and atmospheric situations. Studies that compared information from sferic recording stations with the study participants' headache diaries have seen some overlap, suggesting that migraine episodes can be triggered by sferic variability.

The association between weather and migraine episodes underscores the importance of keeping a headache diary to help identify and track potential triggers. Such a diary could make note of the prevailing weather patterns on days when you develop a migraine. Over time, you may be able to predict when you're especially vulnerable.

Although you can't change the weather, you can be extra vigilant about diet, rest and using preventative medications.

Sources:

Kelman L. "The Triggers or Precipitants of the Acute Migraine Attack." Cephalgia. 27.5 (2007): 394-402.
<www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1468-2982.2007.01303.x>

Martin V.T., M.M. Behbehani. "Toward a Rational Understanding of Migraine Trigger Factors." Medical Clinics of North America. 85.4 (2001): 911-41.
<http://www.medical.theclinics.com/article/S0025-7125(05)70351-5/fulltext> (subscription)

Prince P.B., A.M. Rapoport, F.D. Sheftell, S.J. Tepper, M.E. Bigal. "The Effect of Weather on Headache." Headache. 44.6 (2004): 596-602.
<http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2004.446008.x>

Walach H., H.D. Betz, A. Schweickhardt. "Sferics and Headache: A Prospective Study." Cephalgia. 21.6 (2001): 685-90.
<http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1468-2982.2001.00230.x> (subscription)</sub>

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD, works as a medical writer, editor, and consultant in Durham, NC. She served as editor-in-chief for two multi-volume MacMillan encyclopedias:  "The Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior" and "Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco: Learning About Addictive Behavior." She worked on the 18th edition of the "Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy," and has written thousands of print and online articles for healthcare providers and consumers.
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