Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Flight associated headaches

I have been on a few international flights where I suffered debilitating headaches. One was so bad that I considered quitting international travel altogether. Now it seems that I am not alone.

A paper in Cephalalgia, An Internation Journal of Headache, as it dubs itself, found that over 22% of passengers reported flight associated headaches at least once a month.

The research was based on questionnaires filled out by travellers, the majority of whom flew in economy class. Suggestions for possible causes of these headaches were the constant noise of the engines, the quality, the lower air pressure and oxygen content of the recirculated cabin air.

Another, earlier, study in the New England Journal of Medicine where the changes in cabin pressure was simulated in a hypobaric chamber found that some participants suffered symptoms akin to high-altitude mountain sickness.

Thankfully, at least in my case, I don't get headaches on every flight and it has been possible to enjoy many holidays in distant places. It will be interesting to see what future research uncovers, as well as the impact of quieter cabins, such as on the Airbus A380, and the higher cabin pressures of the Boeing 787.


I Potasman, O Rofe & B Weller, Flight-associated headaches—prevalence and characteristics. Cephalagia, 2008; 28:863-867.

Muhm JM, Rock PB, McMullin DL, Jones SP, Lu IL, Eilers KD et al. Effect of aircraft-cabin altitude on passenger discomfort. N Engl J Med 2007; 357:18–27.

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