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Do you get mysterious seasonal headaches? Blame weather whiplash



Do you get mysterious seasonal headaches? Blame weather whiplash

Alanna Santini’s friends call her the “human weather vane.” On cloudy days, the 42-year-old advertising executive from Silver Lake invariably comes down with a bad headache. It’s an experience she grew accustomed to in her home state of New York and something she was happy to escape when she moved west five years ago. But this year, as an unusually dark and stormy Los Angeles winter segued into a rainy, overcast spring, her weather-induced headaches returned with a vengeance — adding a whole new dimension to the term June gloom.

“I’ve been waking up with a headache for the past three months because it has either been raining or on the cusp of raining,” Santini said.

Seasonal headaches are a common if somewhat mysterious phenomenon (it’s important to note that migraines are a type of headache but that all headaches are not migraines). Many people who get either type of headache note that they can occur during sudden shifts in barometric pressure when the weather changes.

Such complaints have become so frequent that scientists and healthcare providers have sought to investigate and explain the correlation. So exactly how do the pervasive clouds and rain contribute to headaches and migraines?


One possible cause could be our sinuses, says Dr. David Gudis, chief of the division of rhinology and anterior skull base surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Barometric pressure sinusitis, otherwise known as barosinusitis, is an established medical condition in which people feel intense sinus headaches and inflammation. Gudis describes the sinuses as “compartments of little air-filled cavities, like a honeycomb,” or “an office with lots of cubicles in which each space is an air-filled compartment lined by a mucus membrane, surrounded by bony partitions.”

When sinuses are functioning normally, he says, air moves freely so that the air pressure in the nose and sinuses is the same as in one’s surrounding atmosphere. But when sinuses become blocked, usually due to inflammation, the air pressure inside your sinuses is uneven to that of your surroundings, causing pain or pressure from fluid that can’t drain or air that can’t move around freely.

Barosinusitis is fairly common on flights or when scuba-diving because the atmospheric pressure around us can’t always equalize with the air pressure inside our sinuses. (It also explains why we often feel like our ears need to pop on airplanes). Gudis likens it to the way a half-empty plastic water bottle changes shape on a flight.

“If you drink from a plastic water bottle while you’re on a flight and screw the cap on, when you land it looks like someone squeezed the bottle,” Gudis said. “According to Boyle’s law, if the temperature doesn’t change, pressure and volume are inversely correlated, which means that pressure changes in the environment can cause expansion or contraction of air-space cavities in the body.”

While these concepts may sound like long-forgotten high school physics lessons, they explain why so many of us feel uncomfortable when air pressure changes. While June gloom and other weather patterns occur much more slowly than the sudden rise and fall of air pressure on a flight, you can still feel the same kind of discomfort during correlating barometric shifts, resulting in sinus or ear pain.


For years, experts have been looking into how weather patterns can trigger headaches. Gudis cites a weather phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest known as Chinook winds, strong winds that develop from late fall to early spring. When a straight-line jet stream blows in from the Pacific Ocean.

In 2000, a study was published in Neurology that found these winds could trigger migraines. Other studies have established a link between Vitamin D (which we get naturally from sunlight) deficiency and increased tension headaches and migraines.

Dr. Diana Shadbehr, head of the Headache Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, agrees that barometric pressure can affect sinuses but says researchers haven’t yet been able to prove that weather changes are the sole cause of seasonal headaches and migraines.

“While many patients report worsening of headaches with weather changes, and there was even a research study in Japan that showed a correlation between barometric pressure changes and more headaches, it is difficult to account for all other variables that can trigger a headache such as different foods, stress and hormonal fluctuations,” she wrote via email.

When it comes to weather-induced headaches, everyone’s triggers are different; for some, Shadbehr suggests sunny days may be a trigger.


“Sunlight contains blue wavelengths of light that can trigger a migraine attack,” she said. “Photophobia can occur both in the setting of natural light and synthetic light. Additionally, sunlight exposure can cause dehydration which can also trigger a headache. Light can activate brain cells in areas of the brain that are involved in headaches.”

Whether or not your headaches are tied to the weather, there are ways to seek relief. If you don’t have any contraindications, a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen could do the trick. If you feel the headache might stem from your sinuses and it’s OK with your doctor, Gudis says over-the-counter decongestants such as pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine or oxymetazoline can help, as can nasal spray solutions such as fluticasone (steroid-based) or azelastine (an antihistamine). Always consult your doctor first before trying a new medicine. There’s even an app, WeatherX, designed to tip off those who suffer from barometric pressure headaches when a shift is happening.

Santini says she’s sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Though none of us can control how our heads might respond to the pervasive pall of June gloom, we can stock up on cold and allergy meds and patiently wait for our spring suffering to come to its natural end. Santini, especially, can’t wait. Until then, she says: “Have pain pills, will travel.”

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Test Your Focus: Can You Spend 10 Minutes With One Painting?



Test Your Focus: Can You Spend 10 Minutes With One Painting?

You made it , longer than about percent of readers so far.

The Painting

As you may recall, the painting you just spent time with is “Nocturne in Blue and Silver,” by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. (You may be familiar with one of Whistler’s more famous paintings — a portrait of his mother.)

The one you just spent time with currently hangs on the second floor of the Harvard Art Museums:

Lauren O’Neil for The New York Times


The painting, part of a series that Whistler started in the late 1860s, shows the industrial banks of the River Thames in London in hazy blue tones.

In an 1885 lecture on the interaction between nature and the artist, Whistler spoke of the transition from day to night, “when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night.”

That mark we just saw is Whistler’s “signature,” and we see a version of it in many of his paintings. It is derived from the form of a butterfly; he iterated on the symbol throughout his life.

And the second reflection? Well, this is where things get fun. You may crave a definitive answer, but the painting itself doesn’t really provide one.


Kate Smith, a senior conservator of paintings and head of the paintings lab at the Harvard Art Museums, has looked at infrared photographs of the painting. She has a theory of her own.

She believes Whistler may have started the painting one way and then simply changed his mind, flipped the panel upside down and started over.

Ms. Smith explained that this mystery reflection could be what’s called a pentimento — a change to a piece of art that slowly emerges over time. It’s possible that when this painting was finished, this reflection wasn’t there — by design. It may have emerged only decades later.

Or Whistler may have intentionally left the ghostly reflection in for us to see. He described the paintings in this series as arrangements of “line, form and color first.” Once, he was asked to confirm if figures in another painting were people. He wouldn’t say one way or another.

“They are just what you like,” he said.


(If you want, look again now that you know more.)

The Point

This painting was well suited as a subject of our experiment: It has mysteries revealed upon close inspection. But the point of the exercise was not exactly for you to notice the mysteries. It was just to get you to notice at all.

The act of focusing is both possible and valuable, researchers say, no matter how intimidating or pointless it might seem. That’s particularly important in a world where typical office workers spend an average of less than a minute at a time on any one screen, according to research by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Attention Span.”

When you’re used to a manic social media feed, “it’s hard to pay attention to content that doesn’t change,” she said.


Think again about the time you spent looking at the painting.

At first, you may have felt that it was too dull to hold your interest for even 10 seconds, much less 10 minutes.

When Professor Roberts at Harvard first conceived of this assignment — the three-hour version — she saw it as a launching point to help students write an art history research paper. But these days she also sees it as a way to teach patience. (She recommended this Whistler painting for our exercise.)

Many of her students, she says, react to the assignment with “horror.” (This may have happened to you, too.)

“It’s a combination of, ‘Oh, my God, that’s impossible,’” she said. “And also at the same time, the sense that it’s remedial.”


But they usually find the experience, as you may have, neither too difficult nor too simple. The students see that they did not notice everything worth seeing in the painting at first glance, she said. And they find that by being a little bored, and a little outside their comfort zone, they can see something new.

If you liked the way you felt, try the exercise again with any piece of art. Or, if you’re feeling bolder, print out Professor Roberts’s original assignment. Then go to a museum, pick a work of art and settle in.

Consider also a song, or a poem. Or skip art altogether.

“You can just go look at a tree,” she said. “You can look at a rock.”

Your attention is a product of a lot of things, said Professor Mark, not all of which are in your power. But a little practice can help. “We do many behaviors that are automatic,” she said. “Becoming aware of such automatic behaviors is a skill, and we can then better control where we place our attention.”


And with that skill honed, you may linger more, and better.