Yes, airplane headache is a thing. A few years ago some researchers started noticing a common pattern – a headache which struck during flight, especially during the landing phase. And it’s much more common than you may think.
Now, we all know that the changes in pressure can cause headaches. Some people will get migraine attacks during and after flights, or other types of headaches.
But the airplane headache is something a little bit unique. It seems to strike mostly men, lasts no more than 30 minutes, and, like a headache from migraine, is one sided.
There are not usually other symptoms (as is the case with migraine triggered during travel).
The airplane headache turned out to be so common that the authors of one airplane headache study suggested we may want to see it as an official headache classification.
These headaches may mostly be caused by a type of sinus barotrauma (also known as sinus squeeze). Barotrauma occurs due to a blockage in the sinuses, where the sinus is connected to the nasal cavity.
The age-old solution of chewing gum or swallowing will not work for this type of barotrauma. Those work well enough with your Eustachian tubes, allowing pressure equalization in the ear. But it won’t help with sinus barotrauma.
Sometimes the blockage is severe enough that surgery will be required. However, in most cases some medication will be a help..
The airplane headache may be better or worse from flight to flight. This could partly have to do with the level of blockage, which could vary due to allergies and infections.
Taking something for the pain is appropriate, but there are ways to minimize and prevent the pain in the first place. Topical decongestants (nasal spray) (such as those with oxymetazoline or phenylephrine) may help clear things up. Talk to your doctor especially if the pain lasts beyond 30 minutes, or is severe.
For more information:
- Airplane headache and sinus barotrauma: Any missing link?
- Barosinusitis Treatment & Management
- Aerosinusitis – Severe Airplane Headache (Facebook Group)