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Study: Winds Can Trigger Migraines

Finding may help people avoid dreaded headaches

By Neil Sherman
HealthSCOUT Reporter

THURSDAY, Feb. 3 (HealthSCOUT) -- What causes migraines? The answer could be blowin' in the wind, researchers say.

While many migraine sufferers believe changes in weather can trigger migraines, scientists until now had very little evidence to support their experiences. Comparing headache diaries of 75 migraine sufferers with daily weather records in Alberta, Canada, researchers found that a Chinook, a warm Rocky Mountain wind, can trigger the syndrome.

"It's always nice to validate what patients are saying," says Dr. Werner Becker, a professor in the department of clinical neurosciences at the University of Calgary, in Alberta. "The more we learn about what can trigger a migraine headache, the more likely it is that we can find out what causes the disease."

Migraines are caused when blood vessels in the brain expand and press against nerves. Unlike a headache, a migraine may have many symptoms: nausea, vomiting; auras (light spots), sensitivity to light and sound, numbness and difficulty in speech. Migraines are known for their severe pain and can last for days or weeks. Twenty-three million Americans suffer from the disorder, says the National Migraine Association.

Chinooks are perfect for testing if weather affects migraines, Becker says. "They cause a profound weather change and start at the same time each year." Chinook winds rush over the Rocky Mountains and sweep across Alberta from fall to spring. Known as "the snow eater," the warm wind can make a bitterly cold winter day spring-like. Considered a welcome respite from the long Canadian winters, Chinook winds also can be strong, reaching 100 mph.


Tracking triggers

Becker and his colleagues classified each day over two years as pre-Chinook (when such a wind is forecast), Chinook or non-Chinook days. The 75 patients, ages 16 to 65, kept a daily record of their headaches, including the severity, and the time of day it occurred. Becker found that 32 patients were more likely to have migraines during a Chinook.

The researchers didn't disclose to the volunteers that they were researching weather conditions.

Looking more closely, researchers found that 17 of the 32 patients suffered migraines on pre-Chinook days. On days when the Chinooks blew more than 24 mph, 15 had a tendency to get migraines. Only two patients were more likely to get migraines under both weather conditions.

"This indicates that the two weather conditions trigger migraines differently," Becker explains. "How Chinooks trigger a migraine is still not known."

The findings were published in the Jan. 25 edition of the journal Neurology.

Becker's research "helps confirm something that has been postulated for 30 years," says Michael John Coleman, executive director of the National Migraine Association in Washington, D.C. "It's important to note the biggest part of migraine treatment is tracing down triggers and figuring out ways to manage them."

Weather is only one of several migraine triggers, Coleman and Becker say. "Most migraine patients have up to six triggers," Becker says. "One of the things our study may do is help patients take better care of themselves if the weather shows a Chinook coming. Avoiding red wine or certain foods on pre-Chinook days could add up and help to prevent a headache."

Becker speculates that patients could also take drugs like naproxen a day before a Chinook arrives. "That could prevent a migraine or at least make it less severe," he says.

"You can't control the weather, so it is particularly important to know which triggers can bring on your migraine. If you know your triggers, you are going to manage your treatment much more proficiently," Coleman says.

What To Do

For more information on migraine headaches, see the National Migraine Association or the National Headache Foundation.

To learn more about Chinook winds, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.