How To Ground An Airplane Headache

Flying is a headache, literally, first study of its kind shows.

October 13, 2008

Meditation, relaxation techniques can make your next flight headache-free.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS PA—Does it seems like you get a splitting headache every time you fly? As if long lines, delayed flights, and lack of elbowroom aren’t enough of a pain, “airplane headache” may affect millions of people every year, a new study suggests. Women and people who get migraine headaches seem to be especially prone. This is the first comprehensive study of a phenomenon that’s probably more familiar to travelers than to many doctors.


THE DETAILS: Researchers at a medical clinic in Haifa, Israel, surveyed 906 travelers and found that 52 of them—almost 6%—reported suffering flight-associated headaches. Extrapolated to the number of commercial air travelers worldwide, that number implies more than 100 million airplane headaches happen a year. The headaches averaged 6.2 on a 1–10 pain scale; two-thirds of the headache sufferers were women and a fifth of them reported suffering migraines.

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s not clear what causes airplane headaches. “I don’t think there’s much awareness of this,” says Israel Postman, MD, who directed the study. “As a consequence, there aren't too many theories.” In the study, headaches tended to occur when planes were taking off or landing, suggesting that a change in cabin pressure might be a factor. Engine noise, cabin air quality, and stress could also contribute. While over-the-counter headache pills may help in some cases, using them may not be the most effective tactic, says Frederick G. Freitag, DO, National Headache Foundation board of directors member and associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, IL. He suspects these are vascular headaches, a swelling of the blood vessels and tissues around the head triggered by airplane cabin pressure, rather than the tension headaches we all get from time to time. “I would suggest strategies aimed toward vascular headaches, like the use of ice packs to the back of the neck and over the area of most intense pain, using eye shades to reduce light exposure and ear plugs to reduce noise.” Meditation or other relaxation techniques could also help.

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