This major Canadian city can be a tricky place for migraine sufferers

Kyle BrittainVideo Journalist

Alberta's weather isn't a breeze for everyone.

For many Calgarians, a Chinook arch in the western skies is a welcome sight because it signals a period of warmer weather. For others, it can be a sign of impending pain.

It hits migraine sufferers the hardest, many of whom cite Chinooks as a potential trigger. Besides debilitating pain, symptoms often include nausea and sensitivity to light. The headaches can be so bad that sufferers are unable to go to work.

“When I moved here to Calgary, within a day I had one, and I had to go to the ER," says migraine sufferer Melissa Bunting.

"The doctor who treated me [said] ‘you moved to quite possibly the worst place you can live for migraines.’”

During particularly intense Chinook events, it is not uncommon to see a surge in emergency room visits in Calgary.

Many sufferers claim their worst migraines didn't begin until they moved to Chinook country.

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“When I moved to Calgary is when I started having migraines that were weather-related," says Bertha Kizito.

"At my workplace, I realized that a lot of people weren't coming in and they were sick when the weather changed and I was kind of in that.”


Dr. Werner Becker, a professor emeritus, at the department of clinical neurosciences at the University of Calgary says there are two dominant groups of migraine sufferers who are sensitive to Chinooks.

“About half of those patients that were sensitive seemed to be sensitive to the pre-Chinook day, presumably when barometric pressure is falling," Dr. Becker says.

"And, the other half seem sensitive to the Chinook day itself. So it does seem that Chinooks can trigger migraines in two different ways.”

The exact weather phenomena responsible for triggering migraines are unknown, but for pre-Chinook sufferers, it could be due to a rapid decline in barometric pressure or the elevated levels of pollutants associated with a strong low-level inversion.

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Once the Chinook begins to blow, the sudden change in temperatures, wind velocity, or an increase in positive ions in the air could trigger the second group.

Conducting controlled research to pinpoint the exact cause is difficult given that no two Chinooks are the same and sufferers may have several additional migraine triggers.

“Most people can identify about six or more migraine triggers; anything from a lot of stress, to being short on sleep, to certain foods, to weather changes," Dr. Becker says.

"The thing with migraine triggers is they often need to add up to trigger an attack.”

Being aware of personal triggers may help prevent attacks. When a Chinook is in the forecast, patients can plan by limiting exposure to other triggers and taking prescribed medications in advance, if possible.

“If you're suffering from migraines, don't just suffer in silence," advises Calgary physician Dr. Raj Bhardwaj.

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"Talk to your doctor about that. There a lot of good medications that we can use to treat migraines and sometimes even prevent them if they're happening that frequently.”


Editor's note: This article was originally published in June 2020