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Does pollution cause migraines?*

March 9, 2009 |  3:00 pm

High temperatures and low air pressure trigger migraines, according to a large study published online today in the journal Neurology. But researchers did not find a clear association between headaches and air pollution.

J2zhrancTriggers increase the probability of having a migraine attack. A variety are well-known: red wine, chocolate, soft cheese and the beginning of the menstrual cycle.

Weather -- especially changes in air pressure -- is frequently cited as a headache trigger but it had not previously been shown in such a large, well-designed study.

The researchers, from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health, were curious about pollution because fine particulate pollutants cause or complicate other health problems, including heart attacks, stroke, congestive heart failure and asthma.

The study included 7,054 headache patients of both genders and varying ages and ethnic groups who were seen at the medical center's emergency room between May 2000 and December 2007. Researchers looked at temperature levels, barometric pressure, humidity, fine particulate matter and other pollutants during the three days before each patient was seen in the ER and for a control day, in which the patient did not report a headache.

A rise in temperature was strongly associated with headaches: An increase of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees F, as a reader has so kindly pointed out below) increased the risk of migraine by 7.4%. Low air pressure, which often precedes storms, played a smaller role.

"This study provides pretty rigorous scientific proof that changes in temperature are migraine triggers, and that's something that's not been known before," said Dr. Richard Lipton of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City.

Knowing what can trigger an attack gives migraine sufferers a measure of control, said Lipton, who was not associated with the study. One of his patients, for example, moved from New York City to Arizona because air pressure in the Southwest is less changeable.

Triggers often work in concert. So migraine sufferers could, for example, be especially careful to avoid red wine and chocolate on hotter days or when a storm is forecast.

Lipton was less convinced by the study's finding on ambient air pollution, which, he said, was harder than temperature to measure over a large region. But he also said that a similar study that found a correlation between particulate matter and asthma also used a central monitoring site.

The migraine study did find a borderline association between headaches and levels of nitrogen dioxide, found in smog and car exhaust. Given the role of fine particulate matter in cardiovascular disease, the researchers called for additional study on its relation to migraines.

-- Mary Engel

Photo credit: Janet Morgan Mol / Novartis Pharmaceuticals

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Comments (8)

An increase of 5 degrees celsius is an increase of 9 degrees fahrenheit, not 41 degrees.

I have 52 years of migraine study, as my wife suffers with them.. weather has no effect at all, as we live in the N.E., and summer is no worse.

feverfew seems to help, taking daily.

Moving to Arizona seems like a bad idea given that higher temperatures can trigger migraines.

This is not news to me though. I dread hot days because it means I may get a migraine. But I wonder how much of this has to do with the increased risk of dehydration, which can also trigger migraines. Or maybe because it tends to be brighter, which can also cause migraines (which is why I wear sunglasses nearly every time I step outside).

Don, each person is different. Weather may affect some but not others. Glad your wife isn't susceptible to heat as a trigger. I am, but not to soft cheese, as far as I know.

Stormy weather, i.e. lower air pressure, doesn't seem to be a problem for me.

When someone is in headache/depression, eating less and enjoying favorite sports will be helpful, from my perspective.

How useless is this study? Hot day, sun out, more glare, more migraines.

I lived in Laguna Beach for 12 years and then in Rolling Hills Estates on the PV Penninsula for another 10 years. During that period, I suffered with horrible migrains. Upon moving north to the Sana Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County where we lived for 12 years, I never had another migrain. I now live in Southern Oregon and am still free of migrains.

For me changes in weather and air pressure are guaranteed to trigger a migraine. I live in San Diego and if the fog starts to roll in, my head feels it before I even look out the window to see it.

As for Ouch's comment-glare headaches are usually routine headaches usually caused by excessive squinting. Put on a good pair of sunglasses take a few aspirin/acetominophen and you're usually good to go after a bit.

Migraines, unless caught in time, are the "gift that keeps on giving".

I agree with the article, but more than those other factors,
SUGER and GLUTEN (wheat)
together caused 5 migraines per week,
the hot African weather I live in made that much worse.
Car fumes were also a problem.

My sinuses were clogged with gluten and suger,
I can only say : YAY I can breathe again!!!!
It was a migraine 2 out of 3 days, for decades, now I have had
just a handfull in the last year - and always after eating suger and gluten.

I don't even eat grapes anymore. N booze at all (its suger, ya see).

Please try this simple remedy, if you are suffering. I have lost 20 pounds, no more leg cramps in the night, or flakey skin. No more painkillers (except in hot African weather).

I am healthier at 40 than I was at 20.


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