Can Daylight Savings Time trigger a headache?

March 06, 2014

While some people may associate the time change with some types of headaches, there is a strong connection between sleep deprivation and headaches, says UC Irvine Health neurologist Dr. Lama Al-Khoury. The time change – which takes place Sunday, March 9 – can disrupt sleeping schedules, and poor sleep and sleep deprivation may trigger migraines in patients who are predisposed to having them, she notes.

If you endure relentless throbbing in your head, take comfort knowing you are not alone. The World Health Organization estimates that in the developed world, about 80 percent of women and 67 percent of men will experience a tension headache at some point in their lives. Migraines and other headaches cause American employers to lose more than $13 billion each year from 113 million lost work days, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.

Headaches may be categorized into primary or secondary headaches. If your headache is caused by an underlying condition – for example, a disease of the brain or its vessels,  infection or other identifiable illness such as an ear, nose or throat condition – you have a secondary headache. With a primary headache, there is no underlying identifiable illness as a cause of the pain.

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Migraine triggers

Tension headaches are the most common primary headaches, with migraines coming in second.

Migraines are often described as throbbing or pulsating, but they also can be dull or pressure or sharp. They often occur on half of the head or in a specific location but may involve the whole head and sometimes switch from one side to the other.

Migraines are complex disorders with a wide variety of triggers. The triggers can include:

  • Stress
  • Weather changes
  • Menstruation
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia
  • Fasting or dehydration
  • Hormones
  • Bright or flickering lights
  • Odors, including cigarette smoking
  • Food, food additives and beverages such as alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, monosodium glutamate, preserved food/ nitrites, certain artificial sweeteners, aged cheeses, certain dairy products, nuts, and some fruits and vegetables.

Migraines tend to be more debilitating and painful than tension headaches, especially because they are associated with other potentially debilitating symptoms including

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Other gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and smell
  • Occasional presence of an aura, which may precede or accompany the headache

An aura can be a visual or sensory impairment. Visual auras are more common and are often described as shimmering lights, or as arcs, shapes, colors or patterns. Sometimes visual symptoms can involve dark spots or total or partial loss of vision, Al-Khoury says. Sensory auras can be felt as tingling or numbness that starts small and spreads to a larger area of the face or limb. Other auras may involve difficulty understanding or expressing language.

If you have headaches that are triggered lack of sleep, make sure you plan to get to bed at a proper hour even as the daylight lingers, Al-Khoury says. Pay attention to other triggers, and see a headache specialist to get your headache properly diagnosed and treated.