Why I get a headache before a thunderstorm – the reason is not only due to atmospheric pressure

If you notice that you have a headache before a thunderstorm, it is quite possible that this is not a coincidence. Weather is considered a factor in headaches. There is even a term “weather dependent,” which is applied to people who experience deterioration in health due to changing weather conditions. True, research on the influence of weather conditions on people’s well-being is rather ambiguous. However, when the weather suddenly worsens, for example before a thunderstorm, changes occur in the environment that may well cause headaches.

Why do I get a headache before a thunderstorm? The reason is not only in atmospheric pressure. People who feel unwell when the weather worsens are called weather dependent. Photo.

People who feel unwell when the weather worsens are called weather dependent

Changes in atmospheric pressure and headache

The UK's National Health Service lists bad weather as one of the most common causes of headaches. The American Migraine Foundation also states that headaches can be caused by weather conditions. But why does this happen?

As a rule, migraines are associated with changes in atmospheric pressure, which seems quite logical. This is also believed to be the reason why some people get headaches on airplanes. Despite the fact that the pressure in the cabin remains much higher than outside, pressure changes still occur during takeoff and landing.

Typically, such changes manifest themselves in the form of “congestion” in the ears, which quickly passes. But some people sometimes experience headaches and even dizziness. This condition has its own name – “airplane headache”. It is usually a stabbing pain that occurs in the front of the head. Before a thunderstorm or storm, virtually the same changes occur in the environment – a sharp change in atmospheric pressure.

Changes in atmospheric pressure and headaches. Many people experience headaches on an airplane. Photo.

Many people experience headaches on planes

But at the same time, weather dependence is not officially recognized by the medical community as a disease and is not included in the list of the International Classification of Diseases adopted by WHO. The reason is that scientists still cannot reach a consensus. For example, in a 2019 pooling study, researchers reviewed a number of previous studies examining the relationship between barometric pressure and headaches. Many studies have indicated that there is indeed a relationship.

For example, one 2009 study found that low barometric pressure increases the risk of severe headaches requiring medical attention. It was quite a large-scale work, in which 7,000 people took part.

However, in general, the results can be characterized as contradictory, so it is difficult to draw clear conclusions. Moreover, as a result of a more recent study conducted in 2023, scientists were also unable to come to clear conclusions. Therefore, scientists are not entirely sure that it is pressure that causes headaches.

Why changes in atmospheric pressure cause headaches

Despite the fact that scientists are still undecided about the effect of atmospheric pressure on well-being, many have probably felt it themselves. But why is this happening? There are several theories about this. According to one of them, the trigeminal nerve, one of the largest cranial nerves, which is the cause of many headaches and facial pain, is to blame.

Why changes in atmospheric pressure cause headaches. The cause of headaches may be the facial nerve, which is sensitive to atmospheric pressure. Photo.

The cause of the headache may be the facial nerve, which is sensitive to atmospheric pressure

Presumably, the trigeminal nerve is sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure at its junction with the narrow tube of the middle ear. One 2010 study found that lower air pressure increased electrical activity in certain neurons in the brainstem nucleus responsible for transmitting sensory information from the face. This is what causes pain. True, the study was conducted on rats, but it is quite possible that the results are relevant for humans.

There is also a theory that headaches may be associated with an imbalance of pressure in the sinuses. As experts explain, this imbalance can cause pain in the front of the head and behind the eyes.

Other causes of pre-storm headaches

Atmospheric pressure does not appear to be the only cause of headaches before a storm or thunderstorm. Humidity and temperature changes may play a role, according to the American Migraine Foundation. For example, a study by Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas found that when there was high humidity, children and adolescents had a 59% chance of developing headaches. If the humidity was normal, this figure was 21%. Another study, which we reported on earlier, showed that in bad cloudy weather, people's threshold for pain sensitivity increases.

Other causes of headaches before a thunderstorm. High humidity may be one of the causes of headaches. Photo.

Increased humidity may be one of the causes of headaches

It is also believed that different types of headache factors may affect different people differently. For example, during a study in 2000, patients exposed to warm westerly winds in southern Canada reported feeling worse at different times and in response to different conditions. It is possible that due to the fact that different people are susceptible to different meteorological conditions, many previous studies are contradictory, and do not allow scientists to come to a consensus.

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To obtain unambiguous conclusions regarding the factors of headache and the mechanisms of their effect on the body, large-scale and thorough research is needed. In the meantime, we can only come to the conclusion that weather dependence — This is a very real problem that affects many people.