Comment and opinion
Can bad weather really cause headaches?
(19 April 2021)
In this article, Professor Amanda Ellison explores the connection between headaches and the weather, and explains how to reduce the impact that headaches have on our daily lives.
We all know somebody who claims they can predict the weather with their body. Whether it’s your arthritic relative who knows rain is on the way when their knees ache or your lifelong pal who gets a headache when a storm is approaching. Having written a book on headaches, I hear a lot from people I meet about headaches that are related to the weather. But as it turns out, there actually is a scientific basis for why some people are able to sense changes in the weather by the headaches they cause.
While it’s difficult to say how many people actually suffer from weather-related headache, research shows over 60% of people who suffer from migraines think they’re sensitive to the weather. In 2015, researchers who collected daily sales figures of a headache medication in Japan showed that sales peaked significantly when average barometric pressure decreased. This often happens before bad weather.
But why do these headaches happen? There are two mechanisms of action here.
One is related to the sinuses – the four small air-filled cavities in the bones of the face. Just as people’s ears “pop” when air pressure changes, atmospheric pressure changes can create an imbalance in sinus pressure causing inflammation and pain. This feels different depending on which sinus is most affected, ranging from forehead pain, pain between and behind your eyes, pain in your face, or a more diffuse headache in the front or back of your head. Which you are more prone to depends on the individual structure of your head.
The other way this type of headache happens is related to the way in which pressure changes alter blood flow in the cerebrovascular system – which controls how blood is circulated around your head. Blood is highly toxic to neurons and so it’s very important that blood is kept separate from the brain. The blood vessels of the cerebrovascular system have receptors that activate if blood vessels widen too much, acting as an early warning system that something isn’t quite right. We perceive this activation as pain.
Both of these will at the very least cause a generalised headache in those who are sensitive to pressure changes. But even small drops in pressure have been correlated with increases in migraine episodes in sufferers.
Falling pressure associated with bad weather isn’t the only thing that can affect us. Rising humidity can also cause headaches through our sinuses. This is because high humidity can increase the amount of mucus produced by the lining of the sinuses in order to trap allergens, dust and pollution particles that are plentiful in the dense, moist air. This can cause congestion, inflammation and discomfort in the sinuses – often leading to a sinus headache.
Medicines and other remedies
There’s little any of us can do about the weather. So outside of locking ourselves in pressure-regulated chambers, painkillers and decongestants are probably the only way to remedy your pain until the weather outside passes through.
It’s also worth noting, however, that headaches rarely happen due to one trigger alone – and changes in atmospheric pressure may not always cause a headache. Bad posture and inflammation in the body (usually the result of stress) may both cause headaches. Muscles that are contracted over long periods time need more blood flow to deliver oxygen and other nutrients – and this is the hallmark of inflammation over time. Stress increases the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in our body, which can also cause inflammation and widen the blood vessels in your head – leading to headaches and pain.
Proper posture and reducing stress may help prevent headaches. Staying hydrated and eating a varied diet containing essential minerals and vitamins, and avoiding trigger foods and drinks (if you know them), will also help.
When bad weather is impending, vigorous chewing (such as with chewing gum) can help the pressure equalise in your sinuses through your mouth, nose, and Eustachian tube (which runs from the middle ear to the throat and is really important in equalising pressure) – and may ward off a pressure headache. And choosing sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol may also have the added benefit of stopping nasty respiratory bugs from sticking to your mucus membranes by changing their cell wall structure, according to one study.
Boosting our natural painkillers, such as serotonin and dopamine, is important too. These neurochemicals block the pain signal on its way to our brain and so can lessen how much pain we feel. They are also intimately involved in our mood, so it’s no wonder that low serotonin concentrations are triggers for migraine, and we often experience this as a low mood. It’s why in the days preceding a migraine episode people often crave chocolate (which contains a chemical that turns into serotonin in our body) and intimacy, which boosts serotonin, dopamine and the bonding hormone, oxytoxin – which is also a powerful painkiller.
Keeping these neurotransmitters topped up by doing things we like – be it chatting with friends or listening to music – will ensure good hormonal hygiene, and reduce the impact headaches, even barometric ones, have on our daily lives. So when the weather outside is bad, settling down to watch a movie with a loved one and some chocolate to eat may be as good a remedy as any.