While the province-wide warm-up this week was welcomed by most Albertans, for some people who suffer from migraines, the drastic weather change can be a trigger.
The province launched out of a severe cold snap this week, with temperatures going from low extremes to moderate temperatures within days.
“Weather pressure is definitely one that is a huge trigger for a lot of people,” said Brittney Le Blanc, a chronic migraine sufferer who lives in Edmonton.
“Sunday, as the pressure change kind of happened, I started to feel really gross,” she said. “I think it’s something that a lot of people go through.”
For example, in Edmonton on Jan. 16, the city hit a 23-year low of -30.7 C. Just four days later, on Jan 20, the city hit a high of -4.4 C.
In Calgary, on Jan. 16 the low reached -29.7 C, and by Jan. 20 there was a high of 7.9 C.
Triggers are different for everyone
Dr. Michael Knash, a neurologist at the HealthPointe medical centre in Edmonton, said that while many of his patients say the weather affects them, it’s difficult to pin down cases to specific weather events.
“The weather is never stable,” Knash said. “It’s always either warming up or cooling down, or a storm is blowing in, or it’s snowing.
Knash said that somewhere between 17 and 20 per cent of the population suffers from migraines at some point in their life.
“So that means we’re going to have close to 200,000 people just in the greater Edmonton area who are susceptible to migraines,” he said.
“So even if a small proportion of those people really are susceptible to weather changes, that’s going to be thousands of people who are having their migraines triggered by these weather changes.”
Dr. Thilinie Rajapakse, a pediatric neurologist based at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, said that while not all patients will be affected by weather, she considers it a “common trigger.”
“We just counsel our patients when you know weather changes are coming to kind of tighten up all the other stuff in life so there’s one less thing to worry about,” she said.
Rajapakse recommends her patients keep track of their eating and sleeping habits — as well as menstrual cycles for women — to identify what their other triggers could be. Certain foods and drinks such as red wine, cheese and chocolate can also be considered triggers.
Chinooks appear to have an effect
Rajapakse said she trained in Calgary with Dr. WJ Becker, who published a study in 2000 that concluded “both pre-Chinook and high-wind Chinook days increase the probability of migraine onset in a subset of migraineurs.”
Knash said he believes weather can be a factor, but what the precise trigger is, and how often that specific trigger can happen, depends on the specific weather where people live.
“If you talk to headache doctors and migraine sufferers in Alberta, we seem to have more of a bias towards the barometric pressure and things like the wind and Chinooks,” he said.
“I find it happens anytime there’s a significant weather change,” Le Blanc said. “So it could happen if there is a really hot day and a really bad thunderstorm. It could happen when it’s really, really cold outside and then heats up a whole bunch.”
Finding what works
Le Blanc said that she has tried numerous ways to treat her migraines. She’s tried traditional medication, Botox, acupuncture, chiropractics and yoga.
She said she uses social media to share her story and that while many people have reached out to her to say they’re also suffering, she also uses it as a support system.
“I’ve had a lot of friends in my life who saw the weather pressure change coming, and they were all like, “Are you going to be OK? What can we do? How are you feeling?’ I had a lot of people checking in on me which was really nice.”
“Patients should focus on things they can control,” Knash said. He added that each patient is different, with different triggers, so that the best option is to individually discuss things with a doctor.
READ MORE: How to treat and prevent migraines naturally
“Migraine is a pretty complicated brain phenomenon,” Rajapakse said. “It is essentially the sensory nerves of your brain being knocked off balance from normal sensitization and ‘turning on’ to create pain. And they get turned onto pain mode by a lot of different triggers.”
There are also several apps, such as Migraine Buddy, that can help patients catch triggers and monitor weather, but Rajapakse said they aren’t for everyone.
“Some of those apps I find are also not great for my patients,” Rajapakse said.
“Because then they’ll start getting worried about having a migraine and sometimes that worry and anxiety alone can trigger a migraine even if the weather change wasn’t going to.”