A whole host of factors — including changes in daylight, barometric pressure, and temperature — could be to blame. (Photo: Getty Images)
The arrival of fall brings cooler temps, less humidity, windier days — and more headaches, for some migraineurs.
It’s true: Seasonal changes really can provoke migraines — those severe, throbbing headaches that are often accompanied by auras, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. In fact, research suggests that weather is a trigger for around half of migraineurs who are aware of their triggers.
While it’s clear that outside ambience can cause head pain, figuring out what it is about the change in season that is the culprit is harder to do, says Lee Peterlin, DO, associate professor of neurology and director of headache research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “When you have changes in weather, it’s not just temperature. It’s changes in atmospheric pressure, in wind, in clouds, in dust, and precipitation,” Peterlin tells Yahoo Health.
Changing daylight cycles could be a culprit: “As days tend to shorten, it has a neurologic effect on people,” migraine expert Vince Martin, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati, tells Yahoo Health. “But what I think is a more likely explanation is the turbulent weather and allergens that occur oftentimes in the fall,” Martin says, noting that mold and ragweed are especially prevalent this time of the year.
During the autumn months, there are not only changes in temperature, but also in barometric pressure. “With our research, barometric pressure [change] is probably the No. 1 culprit” of migraines, Martin says, but he admits it’s hard to tease apart temperature and pressure when looking at what specifically is invoking a headache.
“It’s tough, because even those [temperature and pressure changes] are happening together. Usually when a high-pressure system approaches, temperatures tend to fall, barometric pressure tends to go up, and humidity tends to fall,” he explains. “But when low pressure comes in, it’s converse of that: falling barometric pressure, and temperature rises and humidity rises, and you start seeing storms and lightning. Those are the classic patterns.”
Lightning itself is even a migraine trigger, Martin and his fellow researchers found back in 2013. Their study showed that when lightning strikes within 25 miles of a person’s home, his or her migraine risk goes up 28 percent.
Related: 18 Signs You’re Having a Migraine
But just how do weather changes lead to migraine pain? Peterlin explains that it probably has something to do with the activation of the peripheral nociception pathways in the brain (it may be that weather change itself activates these pathways, or weather change affects another mechanism in the body that activates these pathways). In other words: While we know weather is a trigger capable of activating pain, the mechanisms for this are not yet fully known. “And it’s not that I don’t personally know. It’s that the literature doesn’t say it yet,” Peterlin explains.
Martin agrees, noting that experts still aren’t sure of all the different pathways involved in migraine. “We’re in the ballpark, but we don’t know all the specifics of migraine,” he says. “You’d think it would be a simple thing, but it’s a very complex biologic and neurologic event.”
So what can you do if you suspect the change in seasons is triggering your migraines? It’s tough because weather is something that occurs to a person and not something a person seeks out and therefore can avoid, Peterlin says.
Related: 10 Foods That May Trigger a Migraine
If you’ve deduced that it’s the allergies to mold and ragweed that are the culprit, trying to stay indoors more often could help, Martin says. However, staying inside won’t help if barometric pressure changes are your trigger, since “eventually the barometric pressure inside will mirror what’s outside,” he says.
The biggest advice, therefore, is to just be prepared: “If you know weather is a trigger, make sure you have medicine at work, in your purse, in your car — and treat early,” Peterlin says. She also advises talking to your doctor about pre-treatment for migraine if you’re confident that weather is a trigger. (But she says this approach is not appropriate for all migraine sufferers, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about this potential solution before doing it.)
If you’re still trying to figure out if weather is a definite migraine trigger for you, Peterlin suggests keeping a a headache calendar. “Write down, ‘On this day, the temperature was this, and it was raining.’ And keep track of when you had a headache. Then you can go to your doctor and say, ‘This is what I saw. I think this is a pattern,’” she says. This headache calendar can apply to any suspected trigger — a woman’s menstrual cycle, certain foods (perhaps you suspect alcohol is a trigger), and even stress.
For more on migraine triggers and how to avoid them, watch the video below:
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