How I Cope When Weather Changes Trigger Migraine Attacks

Danielle Newport Fancher, 34, first started getting migraine attacks when she was 16. Then, in October 2013, when she was 25, she developed intractable migraine, which is classified as having a migraine attack lasting more than 72 hours1.  She describes it as feeling like she woke up one day with a migraine that just never fully went away. For her, this means living with a consistent baseline of pain that gets somewhat better or much worse with certain triggers—one of the most significant being weather. In particular, Newport Fancher says barometric pressure changes, which result in air pressure shifts as the weather fluctuates, can trigger migraine attacks. And she says living in New York City comes with a lot of sudden weather changes, especially in the winter, which make migraine worse for her.

Migraine is a complex neurological disorder that can cause severe headaches, nausea, sensitivity to light, and other potentially debilitating symptoms, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Different triggers can bring about migraine episodes, including stress, another one of Newport Fancher’s personal triggers. She spoke to SELF about why migraine is not just a “bad headache” and how she’s learned to manage her pain as the seasons fluctuate.

There’s a misconception that migraine is “just a headache,” but it’s so much more than that. During an attack, I feel constant, sharp head pain behind my eyes and in the lower back of my head. I experience numbness, exhaustion, tightness in my shoulders, heaviness in my limbs, and aura, which begins as a small spot in my field of vision. Within about 10 minutes, that spot will completely cloud my eyesight as different flashes of lights and colors emerge. Having migraine is dealing with the constant disappointment that I’m missing out on something. Or the feeling of wanting to get something done, but not being able to because of the severe pain.

Recently, I had a very painful migraine episode after it snowed. I don’t know exactly what it is about winter that makes my migraine attacks worse. Although everyone who has migraine is different, I find that my bad pain days are more frequent when the weather is colder, when there are big temperature shifts (like when it’s cold one day and suddenly warmer the next), or when there are varying days of snow and rain. Since I live in New York City, that sums up a significant amount of wintertime. For some reason, I’m not as prone to migraine in the middle of the summer, but that doesn’t mean the warmer months don’t come with their own weather fluctuations. The truth is, any time of the year can throw me a migraine curveball.

Several years ago, I hit a breaking point. My pain was too severe to continue working and I needed a true break. My job was intense, I was trying to manage my chronic pain, and it was another cold, grey day in the midst of a New York winter. My symptoms were unbearable, and my condition didn’t qualify for disability. So, I made the decision to quit my job and temporarily leave my life in New York. I wanted to see if consistent weather (and time away from the stress of, well, everything) could improve my pain, so I went to live on the beach in Costa Rica for a few weeks.

There was no magic moment when I was suddenly cured—I was still in pain, and there were days when I stayed in bed all day. But living in Costa Rica took some of my migraine triggers, such as extreme weather shifts and heavy stress, off the table for a short period of time. I wouldn’t say my migraine attacks were less intense, but they happened less frequently.