Calgary weather getting to your head? You could blame chinooks

·3 min read
Calgary's sudden changes in weather can have a negative affect on those who deal with migraines, says one researcher at the University of Calgary. (Maridav/Adobe Stock - image credit)
Calgary's sudden changes in weather can have a negative affect on those who deal with migraines, says one researcher at the University of Calgary. (Maridav/Adobe Stock - image credit)

Calgary's temperamental weather can wreak havoc on more than your wardrobe choices, research shows that the change in pressure and weather can cause migraines and severe headaches, says one headache specialist.

Dr. Serena Orr is a clinical assistant professor in the department of clinical neurosciences and the department of pediatrics at the University of Calgary and a child health and wellness researcher.

She says Calgary is a unique location for those who suffer migraines.

  • LISTEN to Orr's full interview with Eyeopener host David Gray here:

Much of this has to do with chinooks. Orr says when weather alters quickly there are big changes in temperature and pressure systems which "can impact the occurrence of headache in people who are predisposed."

"People who have migraine have inherited a tendency to get deep, severe headache attacks ... their brain processes sensory information in a different way [it is] predisposed to respond to big changes in the environment, such as chinooks, changes in sleep, changes in eating habits with these severe attacks of pain," said Orr, on the Calgary Eyeopener.

A beautiful chinook arch like this one on eastbound Glenmore Trail can mean intense headache pain for many Calgarians.
A beautiful chinook arch like this one on eastbound Glenmore Trail can mean intense headache pain for many Calgarians.(Submitted by Samana McEwen)

Warning signs

A migraine coming on can feel differently for everyone but it often begins with pain, says Orr.

That pain can come on in an instant, or take a few hours to even a few days in what Orr says is called a "prodrome phase".

During this phase, symptoms of tiredness and irritability are common.

Orr says especially with children, "visual changes" can happen, for example the child may be pale or have "sunken eyes."

She says a subset of people will also experience an "aura" phase, about 20 minutes before the pain starts.

"Where they get what we call neurological deficits," said Orr.

"That may be visual changes to seeing things that aren't there, commonly kind of dots or colours, losing part of their vision."

A person may also experience sensory changes, "where they feel like pins and needles on one side of their body or even changes in speech where they may have trouble getting their words out."

What can be done?

"I've practiced in a few different places and I've never been asked before if people should move because of the weather. And I get asked that regularly here," said Orr.

She says consistency in environmental systems could relieve migraines, but that's not been researched extensively. Outside of moving to relieve migraines, Orr says there are ways of "self-management".

Part of successfully managing a migraine is identifying one's own triggers, which could be something like sleep patterns, skipping meals and, yes, chinooks.

"It's that kind of change in the environment that the brain is predisposed to," she said.

She adds that regular routines, including sleep and exercise can be effective.

Orr advises dealing with the pain before it begins to intensify, including with medication that is signed off on by your doctor.

"At the first sign of pain, or if there's those neurological symptoms, treating in that stage is a lot more effective than waiting until the pain has ramped up and is more severe because we know that early treatment is more effective," she said.