We’ve all felt it: that heavy feeling in our head that slows us down. It can manifest in different ways for different people. Maybe you can barely hold your head up, or it feels like you have a tight band squeezing your head, or the pressure inside your head makes your head feel like it’s going to explode, leaving you wondering, “Why does my head feel heavy?”
The top causes of a head that feels heavy
Various factors can cause heavy-headedness, from a balance disorder like vertigo to medication side effects, sinus infections and even motion sickness (click through for easy cures for motion sickness). But the most common cause? Changes in the weather that bring swings in barometric pressure, or the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us. Although most of us don’t think about it, the pressure of the air exerts a force on our bodies — and our bodies push back from the inside to maintain equilibrium.
All over the world, all year long, when barometric pressure change occurs (it drops as a storm or inclement weather approaches and rises as skies clear and the winds calm), our bodies have to adapt to preserve that equilibrium, explains Michelle Thompson, MD, who practices functional medicine in Coral Springs, Florida. “It’s when our body has to adapt quickly to these changes that we notice symptoms.” Like our heads feeling heavy, she says, which happens when low pressure in the atmosphere causes a change in sinus pressure.
Changes in barometric pressure cause other symptoms too
Heavy-headedness isn’t the only symptom associated with the weather and changes in barometric pressure. From the joint pain to headaches, mood swings and more, the nuanced impact of our natural environment on our bodies is complex and wide-ranging. Read on for the most common symptoms:
Changing weather is one of the top headache triggers in many parts of the country, says headache expert Vincent Martin, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and president of the National Headache Foundation. “And it’s not just low and falling pressure. People respond differently, and for some, rising pressure can be a trigger.”
Humidity, wind, temperature, precipitation (especially rain) and lightning can also have an effect on headaches. “When a low-pressure system rolls in, it doesn’t just come with an air pressure change. You’ve got all of these other factors, so it’s more than one variable occurring at the same time,” he says. Because it’s difficult to isolate each of these factors from the other, Dr. Martin says experts still aren’t 100% sure that barometric pressure alone is responsible for the headaches. In fact, a study published in the journal Cephalgia for which he was a lead author found that lightning strikes increased risk of headaches and migraines up to 30%.
But like the heavy-headedness, Dr. Martin says headaches could also be caused when dramatic changes in barometric pressure bring a mismatch between pressure in the environment and pressure in the sinuses. Another mechanism for headache triggers could be that a barometric pressure drop triggers our stress response. “In animal models when you put them in a pressure chamber and drop the pressure quickly, it activates their fight or flight response, and that augments pain,” he explains. One more hypothesis he poses is that the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) may be triggered when the inner ear senses the pressure change. (Click through to learn more about nervous system regulation)
Unfortunately, the turbulent and chaotic weather patterns we’ve been seeing across the country — including an increase in the number of violent storms — are increasing the incidence of weather-induced headaches, he says. “We’re experiencing more and more very big falls in barometric pressure. The changes are very pronounced and it’s going to become an even more prominent trigger in headache patients.” (If your headaches worsen on the hottest days, check out these tips to ease heat-induced headaches.)
You probably had a grandma (or maybe it even happens to you) who said she could feel it in her bones when a storm was on the way. Indeed, studies have shown a link between changes in barometric pressure and temperature with onset of joint pain, particularly in people with arthritis, but the mechanism remains unclear. “It has been well-proven that some people have joint pain related to weather changes,” Dr. Martin says. “There is probably some swelling of the joints that occurs with low-pressure systems in general, or it induces inflammation in the joints. From personal experience, I’ll have joint pain when the pressure drops.”
The weather, and specifically barometric pressure, impacts the body’s oxygen levels, says Dr. Thompson. “Changes in air pressure affect the way the cells in your body hold onto or release oxygen, and when that happens there’s a physiological response.” When barometric pressure drops, cells hold less oxygen, she says, which can trigger “low-pressure fatigue.” “When our cells don’t get enough oxygen the body doesn’t produce energy, so we feel tired as a result.
Blood sugar flux
This oxygen effect can also impact blood sugar regulation. “When there’s less oxygen available to the tissues, the body starts to make more red blood cells in order to scoop up as much oxygen as possible,” says Dr. Thompson, who adds that this can make the blood more viscous. “When that happens it can cause clogging of the capillaries, slowing circulation, cutting off blood supply and making it harder for the body to control blood sugar levels.”
High blood pressure
A rise in blood pressure that can come with barometric changes is likely due to the activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, Dr. Martin says. The reason? This “fight or flight” response triggers constriction of arteries, causing blood pressure to rise as the heart works harder to move blood. In fact, researchers in Poland found that a drop in barometric pressure causes blood pressure to rise — and this this effect was most pronounced in the spring.
It’s well documented that our moods generally lift when the sun shines and fall on cloudy days. “I can’t say sunlight doesn’t play a role, but I think the big thing [that triggers blue moods] is the pressure changes that happen before that cloudy day,” says Dr. Martin. Again, he explains, the variety of factors that are changing (temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity and barometric pressure) all likely play a role. In fact, an animal study published in Behavioural Brain Research found that low barometric readings aggravated depression-like behavior.
How to avoid symptoms caused by barometric pressure changes
So what’s a person to do when you can’t control the weather? Being aware of impending weather changes is a start. Also smart: Consider downloading free apps (like WeatherX) that will notify you when the barometric pressure starts to change in your area.
Dr. Martin says he sometimes prescribes medication that can prevent headaches to his patients, and he says they’ve had some success with beta blockers that lower blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about whether this may be an option for you. For diabetics, Dr. Thompson advises keeping a closer watch on blood sugar levels when low-pressure systems move in. “If you’re super sensitive to the pressure changes or if your blood sugar control is super tight, you may need to increase you insulin dose in the short term.” And to avoid the heavy-headedness, experts advise strategies such as making sure to get adequate sleep, staying hydrated and managing stress through exercise, deep breathing or other relaxation techniques.
Interested in other weather-related health concerns? Keep reading!
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.