Airplane Headache in migraine suffers

The downside of travel

The online journal ‘Cephalalgia’ published a paper wherein Italian neurologists report on 75 people who suffer from this peculiar headache. The article describes the clinical features of 75 cases of air travellers.

It was found that “Airplane Headache”, which arises from the changes in cabin pressure on take-off and landing, lasts, on average for about 30 minutes. Airplane Headache is usually one sided and more prevalent in men, i.e. occurs on either the left or the right side of the head and has a stabbing or jabbing nature. Another one of its characteristics is that it generally subsides within a short time.

As for why airplane headaches occur, it’s due to an imbalance between the air pressure in the cabin and those in the frontal sinuses, says lead author of the paper Dr. Federico Mainardi.

There are numerous small air cavities in the head, face and neck region that can only equalise themselves. If there’s a blockage, this can trigger pain signals until the pressure equalise. While the exact cause of airplane headaches remain unclear it’s likely due to several factors such as the shape of the sinuses, as well as the speed of the aircraft and cabin pressure.

There can be other reasons for flight-related headaches: Air travellers may get a migraine or tension-type headache from a lack of sleep, stress, or holding their neck in an awkward position during a long flight.

Also, more than half the participants in the study appeared to suffer from other kinds of headache. This suggests the possibility that travellers already suffering other types of headaches may be more susceptible to airplane headaches as it may activate the pain pathways already linked with severe headaches and migraine.


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