If headache pain is putting a damper on your summer plans, you are not alone. According to a CDC report, one in four adults ages 18-44 have experienced a severe headache or migraine within the past three months. Headaches and migraines have many potential causes and triggers. Here, we will explore the link between heat, humidity, and head pain to help you prevent heat headaches before it disrupts your summer break.
Yes, hot weather is a common headache trigger. But it’s not necessarily rising temperatures that cause head pain. It’s really the environmental changes associated with warm weather that lead to headaches and migraines.
These changes include:
The human body functions optimally within a certain temperature range. When you get too warm through activity or in hot weather, the body starts to sweat. As this sweat evaporates, the body begins to cool down.
If you don’t replenish the fluids you lose through excessive sweating, you can become dehydrated. The link between dehydration and headaches is not entirely understood. One theory is that the loss of water and electrolytes causes blood vessels to narrow, triggering headache symptoms.
Some experts believe that pain receptors (meninges) located within the brain lining are activated when the body loses fluids. It’s also known that even mild levels of hypohydration causes any sensation of pain to be more intense. What we do know is water-deprivation headaches typically dissipate within a few hours of drinking 16-32 ounces of water.
If you tend to get headaches on bright, summer days, it may not be the heat that’s causing your attacks. You may actually be highly sensitive to light levels. This is known as photophobia, or photosensitivity.
Photophobia is so common in people who experience headaches, in fact, that it’s used as one of the criteria for diagnosing migraines. It’s also the reason why you may retreat to a dark room for relief when you have a headache. During the sunny summer months, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and spend time in shaded areas to limit your exposure to direct sunlight.
Can you predict a thunderstorm or blizzard without checking the weather report simply based on your headaches? If so, then you are among the millions of people affected by sudden changes in barometric pressure.
Barometric pressure, or atmospheric pressure, is the weight or force of the air around us and on the body. Extreme heat and humidity along with sudden weather changes can trigger headaches and migraines in individuals who are sensitive to these shifts.
The medical community isn’t entirely sure why or how these changes trigger head pain and other symptoms. Some theorize that barometric pressure changes cause pain by restricting blood vessels, lowering oxygen levels, or triggering certain chemical reactions in the brain.
A headache can also be a symptom of a heat-related illness. These are serious, potentially life-threating conditions that occur when the body is exposed to extreme heat. Extreme heat is not your typical warm summer today. It is defined as temperatures that are much hotter and/or humid than average.
In these conditions, it becomes more difficult for the body to cool itself. If the body heats up more quickly than it can cool down, the body is at risk of damage to the brain and other organs. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are two of the most dangerous forms of heat illness.
If you suspect your headache is related to heat illness, take immediate steps to cool the body. Move to a shaded, cool area. Sip small amounts of water. Place cool, wet cloths on your body or take a cool bath. If you or someone else is nauseous, throwing up, or have a temperature of 103˚ higher—or your symptoms get worsen—seek immediate medical attention.
There is good news for anyone who suffers from heat headaches. They are largely preventable. The more you know about how high heat and humidity affect you and trigger your symptoms, the better prepared you will be to navigate summer weather.
Here are some practical tips to prevent headaches from heat for a safe, fun, and symptom-free summer:
Headache prevention is one of the many benefits of staying hydrated. Proper hydration helps the body regulate temperature more efficiently. It’s also good for joint health, brain function, and recovery from injuries.
If you are thirsty—you’re already dehydrated. It’s important to drink water throughout the course of your day, not just before and after intense workouts. Increase your fluid intake in in hot weather or if you are highly active.
If your headache triggers include bright light and extreme heat, minimize the time you spend in the sun. Seek the shade of trees and outdoor structures whenever possible. If you like to exercise outside or your favorite sports and hobbies are outdoor activities, schedule them earlier or later in the day when it’s cooler and the sun is either just rising or setting.
Wear a wide-brimmed sun hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes and keep cool. You can also look for “migraine glasses” that filter out light wavelengths known to trigger or increase the severity of migraine attacks.
If your headaches seem to coincide with changes in the weather, it makes sense to be prepared. Check the weather report often to stay ahead of barometric pressure changes that can cause intense headache pain and pressure.
Of course, you cannot control what is happening outdoors. But you can take steps to offset atmospheric shifts as much as possible. Limit outdoor activities during times of high humidity or right before a storm. Adjust your air conditioner, humidifier, or dehumidifier to keep your indoor environment unchanged.
It’s easy to overheat in extreme summer temperatures. A headache can be an early sign of trouble. If you are getting too hot, cool down as quickly as possible. Go indoors and drink plain water to rehydrate.
Soak a towel or rag in cold water and apply it to the back of your neck to lower your body temperature. If you’re near a pool, take a dip. A cool shower or an air-conditioned room are also helpful for preventing overheating. Know the and seek emergency medical help if necessary.
Headaches are complex medical conditions. Your pain, symptoms, and triggers can be entirely different from what someone else experiences during an episode. Even if it seems like your headache or migraine is triggered by high heat or humidity, it may have another unknown cause.
Many have an underlying musculoskeletal component. That can be poor posture, anatomical differences that contribute to head and neck pain, or even the daily stressors or life that cause muscle tension and pain in the upper body. An injury or chronic disease can be contributing to the intensity and frequency of headaches as well.
Physical therapy for migraines and headaches is a holistic approach to treating pain, stiffness, and movement restrictions. Stretching, exercise, and hands-on therapies may be the keys to achieving pain relief and improving mobility and range of motion in the neck and shoulders. Physical therapists also provide education on lifestyle changes and modifications you can make to feel and move better this summer, and every season of life.
If chronic headaches are impacting your quality of life, and you cannot seem to determine the cause, physical therapy may be the answer. Schedule a new-patient evaluation to discuss your symptoms and start your path to long-term relief. Find a physical therapy clinic near you.