Migraine sufferers say big temp changes, like Alberta’s warm-up, can be a trigger

Weather changes can be a migraine trigger for some sufferers. Getty Images

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.

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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.

“It’s very easy for people to draw an association between their migraines and the weather.”

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.”

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“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.

“[Other triggers can be] stress, not sleeping well, missing a meal,” Rajapakse said.

“If you add weather changes on top of it, it can kind of tip a person into a migraine.”

Click to play video: 'The differences between a migraine and a headache'
The differences between a migraine and a headache

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.”

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“People are more likely to have migraines before or on Chinook days,” Rajapakse said. “I know having worked there [in Calgary] it was a clear phenomenon that we witnessed.”

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.

“But if you look at studies out of North Carolina and Boston, their population is reporting [migraines from] more heat and humidity in the summer.”
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“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.”

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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.

“A combination of using Botox and using pills when it comes on is what helps [me],” Le Blanc said. “[But] everyone who suffers from migraines doesn’t necessarily suffer the same way.”
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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.

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What it feels like when I have a migraine and I’m trying to keep it all together. @seanouimet and I had some fun with the panoramic camera feature while on the Go Train en route to Toronto earlier this month. This isn’t as smooth as it could be, but it was a good first attempt. I appreciate having friends who I can be like: okay: I have a weird idea, let’s do this. Speaking of migraines, I have another Botox appointment this Thursday morning. It marks a year-and-a-half using Botox as a treatment. It isn’t a cure-all, but my quality of life has been improved! I’m always open to your migraine questions - just please don’t suggest yoga or try to sell me essential oils, thank you. . . . . . . . . . . . . #gotrain #numtot #reflection #reflection_shots #panorama_photo #train #fatbabesdoingthings #plussize #fatfashion #exploreontario #migraineawareness #migraines #psblogger #yegblogger

A post shared by Brittney Le Blanc (@britl) on

“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.

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“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.”

Those suffering from migraines can find support and information from Migraine Canada and the Canadian Headache Society.

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