Written by Carlisle Webber for Chronic Migraine Awareness, Inc.
One winter night when we were dating, we were talking on the phone and I felt a pinch behind my left eyebrow. I told him he’d better make sure to have the snowbrush and ice scraper in his car because it was going to snow soon. No snow was predicted, so he thought I was perhaps a little crazy. Two days later, he woke up, looked out his window, and saw snow covering his car. He changed his mind about me being crazy. Obviously I was some kind of weather psychic. The next time we spoke, he asked me how I knew it was going to snow when there wasn’t any in the forecast. He’d never heard of weather triggered migraine attacks, but he understood my explanation when I told him that I experience pain with weather changes the way some people with healed broken bones do, only I get it in my head, specifically in my sinuses.
I’ve lived with weather related migraine attacks since I was seven years old. They occur when the barometric pressure drops in advance of a weather event, and for me they’re often the worst just after a storm passes and the sun comes out. My dad and one of my sisters get them too. My mom had to get me early from day camp when I got my first headache. As soon as I put my finger on my eyebrow when she said, “Point to where it hurts,” she knew I had inherited my dad’s condition. We call it the family curse, and in a way I am lucky to have other family members who experience them. I had the exact same symptoms as my dad, so my parents knew that although I was in for a lifetime of discomfort, they didn’t have to rush me to the doctor.
For all of us, the pain comes in different forms. Sometimes the pain will be around my eyebrows or behind my eyes, but I’ve also had milder headaches (migraine attacks?) coupled with an ache in my upper row of teeth, tightness in my neck and shoulders, or pressure at the front of my face. While the pain from these headaches (migraine attacks) can be bad to the point of inducing nausea, I generally don’t experience sensitivity to light and sound with them. I experience migraine with aura as well and have since I was twelve, but for me they are two separate things triggered by different stimuli and have different physical effects.
The hardest things about living with weather-related migraines are being unable to control the triggers and not knowing how bad the pain will be during any given event. Geography makes no difference in my pain. I grew up in Chicago and live in southern California now, and I still deal with weather triggered migraine attacks. Even though we don’t get snowstorms in California, I do experience pain during hurricane season or if there’s a ’Pineapple Express. I’m also sensitive to the Santa Ana winds. Sometimes I can take two Excedrin and everything is fine. Sometimes the pain is so bad I can’t work. This made it hard to get help with the pain over the years, because other than the attacks coming with low barometric pressure, they were inconsistent.
I saw physicians and ENTs and had scans of my sinuses. No one ever found anything physically wrong with me, and some didn’t believe me. I had one doctor shrug and say that if Excedrin helped, I shouldn’t worry too much. The doctors advised me to avoid common migraine triggers, but that advice didn’t really work. Finally, one ENT referred me to a neurologist, who prescribed me Imitrex. I’m not sure she believed that I could predict weather, but she did agree that I needed something prescription strength to take on my bad days. I don’t love the side effects, but it does help with the pain so I don’t miss as much work due to headaches.
And if there’s a silver lining to this cloud, I always know when to carry an umbrella.