Calming the Brainstorm

For those on the receiving end of barometric pressure-related headaches, stormy days can be especially tough to weather

Illustration by Rachel Koops

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The pressure above and behind her right eye begins as a pinprick of pain that intensifies gradually until it feels like there’s a “foreign object in my head that needs to come out.” Pressure headaches, as Little Rock marketing professional Margaret Preston calls them, have plagued her since childhood. A swell of pain rolls in whenever a storm front enters the state, the throbbing in her head corresponding to the drop in barometric pressure outside. “I can always predict the weather,” she says.

Weather-related headaches like Preston’s typically kick in as the barometric pressure—the weight of air pressing upon the Earth—begins to decrease a day or two before a storm. When the low-pressure systems that Arkansans are so well-acquainted with move across the region, they bring high humidity, warm temperatures and abundant thunderstorms. While there are no studies showing that the sudden changeability of Arkansas weather makes residents more susceptible to headaches than people elsewhere, Preston and those like her might argue otherwise. Their claim to pain might seem far-fetched to anyone who doesn’t feel like a human barometer, but there is science to back up the weather-headache phenomenon.

It’s been well established that barometric pressure, heat and humidity do cause headaches, the National Headache Foundation reports, citing a study in which almost three in four sufferers surveyed said weather or barometric pressure changes brought on “cranial distress,” while more than a third identified extreme heat or cold as a trigger. A University of Cincinnati report backs up the foundation’s study, showing a 31 percent increased risk of headache on days in which lightning struck within 25 miles of chronic-headache patients’ homes. Neither findings surprise Preston, who made the weather and headache connection on her own: “I’ve been going to doctors all my life about my headaches, and no one mentioned weather.”

The studies focused on primary headaches—tension, cluster and migraines—during which triggers like a sudden temperature change, muscular tension in the neck, too much caffeine or emotional stress send the brain’s nerves and blood vessels into hyperdrive. Those nerves light up like a neon sign, flashing, “Pain, pain, pain.” With each flash, the head throbs, and pressure builds. Preston likens her headaches to classic migraines because they’re usually confined to one side of her head, most often the right.

Dr. Allan McKenzie of Baptist Health Family Clinic-Hillcrest in Little Rock says he believes a link between weather and headaches exists, although he’s aware of no physiological explanation for how barometric pressure might “change our brains or affect blood flow or neurotransmitters.” He has, however, treated enough patients complaining of storm-related headaches to have no doubt that there’s a correlation. A day or two before a storm, he typically notices an uptick in the number of headache sufferers seeking relief.

What can people do to ensure that lightning-bolt headaches don’t fell them? McKenzie says prescription anti-seizure medications, beta blockers or anti-depressants offer the best hope to avert headaches that may become migraines. To reduce pain when a headache has morphed into a mind-numbing throb, over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are helpful; however, overuse of them can actually prompt a headache. As for relieving headaches in general, the University of Arkansas for Medical Science advises people to exercise regularly, avoid caffeinated beverages and drinks sweetened with aspartame and take 400 milligrams of vitamin B2 daily.

That said—and because, as McKenzie explains, the best option for preventive strategies begins first and foremost with simple lifestyle changes—the first step is to identify causes by keeping a headache diary for three months. The diary should note symptoms, time of day, level of pain on a scale of 1 to 10, food and beverages, strong odors and changes in weather. The next step is to avoid triggers. Since weather causes Preston’s headaches, she finds staying indoors on storm days lessens the pain.

The upshot of all headache advice is this: You can’t affect the barometric pressure, but changes in lifestyle make it possible to comfortably weather most headaches.

Posted in Wellness

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