March 26, 2019
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I can predict the weather.
I’m no meteorologist, but I know immediately when a storm is 30 minutes away. I start getting a dull pain that evolves into a stinging sensation and may turn into an intense migraine attack. Some storms and temperature swings are easier on me than others, but that little sensation in my head is always there.
I love bragging about my migraine “super power” because it’s the only cool thing about this disease. I know I can look at the daily or weekly weather report, but let me enjoy this phenomenon side effect, OK?
Many migraineurs are like me. They are hesitant and dread looking up the seven-day forecast, not knowing what it will mean for their health. Another polar vortex is on the way? Neat.
Anecdotal evidence aside, scientists have not found a clear connection between migraine and weather. But migraine research is very limited and not a priority in the medical field, which can attribute to the lack of answers.
I spoke to Dr. Katherine Hamilton, a headache specialist at Penn Medicine, to get more information about weather triggers – and to make sure my brain isn’t playing tricks on me.
“I personally do think that weather changes may predispose some patients to developing a migraine. However, ‘predisposes’ has a different meaning than ‘trigger,’ which is something that consistently causes a migraine,” Hamilton said. “By predisposes, I mean that certain weather conditions or changes in barometric pressure may be one environmental factor that could contribute to developing a migraine if other conditions are present such as dehydration, sleep deprivation, stress, etc.”
OK, that makes me feel a little better about my experiences, especially since I have noticed the knock-me-out storms also happen around times of high stress. It’s important to continue to differentiate between “cause” and “trigger” when talking about migraine, though. The cause is neurological and is still not completely understood by medical professionals and researchers. Triggers, however, are outside factors that can affect the parts of the brain that pumps out those nasty headaches, like the stress, dehydration and sleep deprivation mentioned by Hamilton.
Because of triggers, many migraineurs avoid certain foods, alcohols, focus on stress relief and avoid smells. Luckily, all these triggers can be managed. Weather, however, cannot. There is nothing anyone can do about weather patterns except sit and wait it out.
But why does weather trigger a headache in many people?
“In general, factors that disrupt the body's homeostasis, aka the state of stable equilibrium, can lead to migraine,” Hamilton said. “Studies comparing people with and without migraine have shown different patterns of activation in areas of the brain involved in homeostasis, such as the hypothalamus and brainstem. Based on these studies, it seems that patients with migraine may be more sensitive to changes in the environment and more prone to initiation of a migraine. In this way, changes in weather may affect the brain of a migraine patient differently than a patient without migraine and predispose them to have a migraine attack.”
Barometric pressure seems to be a culprit. One study looked at whether falling barometric pressure seemed to trigger headaches during a time when a typhoon hit Japan. It found that 75 percent of people with migraines had attacks associated with the drop in atmospheric pressure, while only 20 percent of people with tension-type headaches experienced an attack.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, just over one-third of migraineurs feel that certain weather patterns trigger at least some of their attacks. In those with more severe migraine – that is, patients who are attending a headache clinic – a study found that just over half felt that weather triggered some of their attacks. About 10 percent of those patients believed that weather patterns triggered at least two-thirds of their attacks.
I can easily say I am part of that one third cited by the foundation. Even if science rebukes my claim, I have a nice little app that helps me track my headache attacks, as well as track the weather on those days. By looking back at my migraine diary, it’s clear weather has a huge part in my health – especially during times when my stress levels are high.
Since there is no magic power to control the weather, what can migraineurs do to manage attacks when big weather swings hit?
“The one thing I advise patients about is that if they know there is a particular weather pattern that tends to trigger their headaches, during that time, they should be extra careful to stay hydrated, get good sleep, minimize stress, etc. – basically, to be kind to themselves,” Hamilton said. “They should also make sure to have their acute medications on hand so that they can take something at the onset of headache during this vulnerable time.”
The Monthly Migraine is a series dedicated to migraine awareness and support. If you suffer from chronic migraines, you are not alone and we hope to amplify your voice through these pieces. Lindsay Patton-Carson can be reached on Twitter @LindsayPatton.