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: Headaches and Migraines
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
- 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.
Barometric pressure headaches occur after a drop in barometric pressure. They feel like your typical headache or migraine, but you may have some additional symptoms, including:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased sensitivity to light
- Numbness in the face and neck
- Pain in one or both temples
You may have barometric headaches if you regularly experience these symptoms with headache when it’s rainy or humid.
When the outside barometric pressure lowers, it creates a difference between the pressure in the outside air and the air in your sinuses. That can result in pain. The same thing happens when you are on a plane. As the pressure changes with the altitude on takeoff, you might experience ear popping or pain from that change.
A study in Japan looked at the sales of loxoprofen, a headache medicine. Researchers saw a connection between an increase in medication sales and changes to barometric pressure. From this, the researchers concluded that a decrease in barometric pressure causes an increase in the incidence of headaches.
The barometric pressure doesn’t have to change drastically to cause headaches, either. In a study published in 2015, researchers looked at the effects of barometric pressure on people with chronic migraines. The researchers found that even small decreases in barometric pressure induced migraines.
Another study out of Japan saw similar results. In that study, 28 people with a history of migraine kept a headache journal for one year. Migraine frequency increased on days when the barometric pressure was lower by 5 hectopascals (hPa) than the previous day. Migraine frequency also decreased on days when the barometric pressure was 5 hPa or higher than the previous day.
Types of barometric headaches
Barometric pressure causes headaches in non-migraine sufferers as well as migraine patients. These are typically experienced bilaterally, meaning on both sides of the head simultaneously. A barometric pressure migraine, however, is more frequently felt just on one side of the head, although both sides can be affected. A migraine triggered by barometric pressure changes usually lasts an average of 24 hours, although it can run up to 72 hours in some instances.
How to handle barometric headaches and migraine
It makes sense that your first step in managing this type of migraine is to know when the barometric pressure is changing, so investing in a small barometer for your home can help alert you ahead of time.
Some other ways you can reduce the severity of a barometric headache are:
- Watch the weather: It’s not enough to just look through the window. You’ll need to follow the weather predictions in detail, particularly the next two to three days.
- Stay hydrated: Avoid the effects of increased humidity that typically accompany cloud build-up by keeping up your water consumption.
- Avoid glare: Staying indoors might not help you avoid changes in barometric pressure, but it will enable you to manage your exposure to glare, extreme temperatures and humidity. Investing in a good pair of tinted glasses also helps block sunlight outdoors and bright, fluorescent lights indoors.
- Watch Your Triggers: When you know a low pressure period is coming, keep a close eye on any other of your particular triggers, such as foods and drinks that might affect your migraines. It’s possible to get away with having these occasionally, but try to avoid combining them with a dip on the barometer.
The worst-case scenario is if you live in an area where regular drops in pressure occur, you may have to consider relocating to a more temperate climate. Areas such as the humid north west have a much higher likelihood of being a migraine “hot spot” than most places in California or Texas, for example. Managing barometric migraines is possible with a combination of vigilance and care.