Are migraine headaches more likely to strike when the barometric pressure drops, as it does before an impending storm?

A lot of migraineurs—the term for people who experience these painful and sometimes debilitating headaches—certainly think so.

For example, according to a 2013 survey of migraine sufferers by the National Headache Foundation, nearly 75 percent said they consider weather or barometric changes a trigger.

In a study of 916 headache sufferers by the Atlanta Headache Center, published in the journal Cephalalgia, more than half said weather set off migraine attacks for them at least occasionally. Only stress, hormone changes, and skipping meals were more common triggers.

If you suspect that weather may play a role in your migraines, here's what you need to know.

What the Science Says

Some studies over the years have suggested a link between migraine and fluctuations in weather, while others have not. It's been hard for researchers to draw clear conclusions because most studies on migraine and weather are small and involve self-reported symptoms.

More on Headaches

But it’s safe to say that shifts in barometric pressure can set off headaches for some people, says neurologist Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director.

And anecdotal evidence suggests that changes in wind and temperature may do the same.

Just why and how the actions of the weather may lead to migraine pain is uncertain.

“We don't know exactly how weather, or for that matter, other triggers of migraine, actually exert their effects,” says Lawrence C. Newman, M.D., a professor in the department of neurology and director of the headache division at NYU Langone Preston Robert Tisch Center for Men's Health in New York City.

However, it may be that migraine triggers, including weather changes, may alter levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that can make blood vessels constrict.

Triggers may also directly affect the way the brain perceives pain.

And researchers have noted that people who experience migraines are often more sensitive to environmental factors—which may include weather, odors, light exposure, and more—than those who don't experience the headaches.

Storms, Wind, Temperature, and More

Changes in barometric pressure—the weight of the air as it presses on objects—are perhaps the most frequently mentioned weather issue related to migraine pain.  

But other weather factors have also been the subject of some interesting research, though none of it is definitive.

For instance, the arrival of Chinook winds—warm, dry breezes that blow east from the Rocky Mountains—boosted the likelihood of migraines by 19 percent in a Canadian study of 75 people, published in the journal Neurology.

In another study published in Neurology, a temperature rise of roughly 10° F increased the odds of migraine by 11 percent in 7,054 people who went to a Boston emergency room with the headaches.

In addition, research from the University of Cincinnati on 90 migraine sufferers, published in the journal Cephalalgia in 2013, suggested that lightning may play a role in migraine onset.

The Ohio researchers found that chronic headache sufferers had a 28 percent increased risk of migraine on the days when lighting struck within 25 miles of their ZIP code.

Preventing the Problem, Easing the Pain

You can’t control the weather, but you may be able to reduce its ability to set off a migraine by taking control of your other triggers, says Avitzur.

“Some people develop migraines when there’s the perfect storm of triggers—perhaps a bad night’s sleep, a stressful day, and a glass of red wine together lower your threshold," she says. "One more trigger could lead to pain."

Take, for example, the findings from a study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology in 2015, which looked at the frequency and intensity of migraines in 100 people over 12 months.

According to the study authors, while weather may increase headache risk for some people, "other factors may be required to trigger the attack.”

So, in addition to avoiding known triggers, carrying migraine medications with you, especially when a weather change that seems to affect you is predicted, is a smart move.

Take them as directed, usually at the first sign of discomfort, Dr. Newman says. “We now know that migraine specific agents like the triptans have a better effect if taken within the first 40 minutes of pain onset,” he says.