What you should know about barometric pressure and headaches
Several studies have found evidence that weather, and especially changes in pressure, increase the likelihood of headaches and migraines occurring. In fact, a 2017 study demonstrated a positive association between the atmospheric pressure and the amount of migraine pain a person experiences.
Weather changes almost inevitably cause variations in atmospheric pressure. So, headaches or migraines that are caused by or affected by changes in the weather are often called barometric or pressure headaches or migraines.
- Barometric pressure is the force put on our bodies by the air around us.
- Most symptoms are the same or similar to those of all headaches and migraines.
- Medications used for treatments are the same as those used for other headaches and migraines.
- There is usually no way to control or avoid weather and pressure changes.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of barometric pressure headaches may include sensitivity to light, distorted vision, and continual head pain.
For some people, weather changes immediately trigger headache and migraine symptoms, while for others it takes time for these to set in. Some people may also anticipate or sense weather changes well before they happen.
Common symptoms of barometric pressure headaches and migraines include:
- continual head pain that lasts between 4 hours and 3 days
- sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells
- nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting
- distorted vision
- numbness in the face and neck
- pressure or tightness anywhere in the face and neck region
- mood or emotional changes, often depressive or anxious
- dizziness or light-headedness
- increased need to urinate
- more frequent yawning
- slurred speech or thick tongue
- memory difficulties
- aura or the appearance of a ring of light or energy around objects
- difficulty concentrating and sleeping
- craving for specific foods
Researchers think that changes in atmospheric pressure cause a pressure difference between the sinus cavities, the structures and chambers of the inner ear, and the outside world.
Depending on how quickly they occur and their intensity, these pressure changes can cause persistent pain, especially in small, confined, air-filled systems, such as the sinus and ear chambers.
Increasing external pressure may also cause blood vessels to dilate and abnormal blood flow to the brain, increasing the risk of a headache or a migraine.
In general, people with migraines and headache disorders tend to have overactive nervous systems, as well.
Storm systems may cause barometric pressure headaches.
Atmospheric and weather changes associated with headaches include:
- sudden increases in temperature or humidity
- sudden drops in temperature or humidity
- very high or low temperature or humidity
- most storm systems
- strong wind systems
- changes in altitude
While weather change is considered a trigger for migraines, the accompanying pressure changes may not be enough on their own to spark a migraine unless they are dramatic or sudden.
When to seek treatment
It is crucial to seek medical attention anytime headaches or migraines cause severe pain or are disabling.
Similarly, someone should seek medical attention for a head pain that does not go away after:
- using basic over-the-counter medication
- applying normal home care
- using prescription medications
In most cases, there are several low-risk treatment options available to both treat and potentially prevent headaches, especially migraines.
Other reasons to seek medical attention for headaches and migraines include:
- symptoms that start within a few seconds or minutes
- severe symptoms unaffected by any medications
- bloody diarrhea or stool
- continued muscle weakness or numbness
- vision loss or double vision that lasts longer than the pain
- continued memory loss or confusion
How is it diagnosed?
There is no set protocol doctors use to diagnose barometric pressure headaches or migraines.
In most cases, doctors will rely on a person's medical history and diagnostic tools to rule out other causes.
Over-the-counter pain relievers may be recommended to treat barometric pressure headaches and migraines.
Commonly used medications to treat pressure headaches and migraines include:
- Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs).
- Over-the-counter pain relievers.
- Combination over-the-counter medications targeted directly at treating migraines.
- Anti-nausea medications to stop someone feeling sick.
- Analgesic products, such as creams that contain capsaicin. These are available to purchase in pharmacies or online.
A doctor may prescribe medications that can be used to treat acute or severe migraines when they occur.
Basic home remedies can also help reduce the symptoms of headaches and migraines and may help shorten how long they last.
Common tips for treating barometric pressure headaches and migraines at home include:
- applying a wrapped ice pack or pad to the pain areas or the head and neck in general
- trying to relax and breathe through the pain, remembering it will pass eventually
- avoiding known and common triggers, including caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and excess trans fats
- avoiding too much physical activity or exertion
- taking a warm, relaxing bath or shower
- getting plenty of rest and avoiding noisy or overly lit areas
Ways to prevent barometric headaches and migraines include:
- staying hydrated
- avoiding stimulants
- avoiding alcohol
- avoiding excess sugar and unhealthy fats
- trying to keep a regular sleep schedule
- exercising regularly
- practicing stress-relieving techniques, such as yoga or meditation
- eating a balanced diet and not skipping meals
- planning downtime when triggering weather patterns occur, to reduce stress and fatigue that can worsen head pain
- take NSAID medications, as prescribed, in the 24-hour period when triggering weather patterns or changes are due
Common preventative medications used for severe headaches or migraines include:
- anticonvulsant medications
- antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications
- hormone replacement therapy
Several firms have developed new products to treat pressure headaches, due to the number of people with migraines who report that their symptoms worsen with changes in the weather and barometric pressure.
As an example of this, in 2016 MigraineX™ migraine relief ear devices were released to the United States market. The product claims to reduce the intensity, duration, and pain associated with barometric pressure headaches, by slowing down the rate at which air enters the middle ear, reducing the pressure difference between the middle ear and the outside environment.
Botox injections have also been proposed and, increasingly, are being used, as a potential migraine prevention method.
Who is at risk of getting them?
Anyone of any age can get headaches and migraines. But, according to the World Health Oganization, women are twice as likely as men to develop migraines, probably due to hormonal fluctuations.
Furthermore, most people with migraines and headache disorders have a family history of the conditions. Headache disorders also seem to impact most people during their most productive or active years, between the ages of 25 to 55 years.
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