April 27, 2012

Barometric Sinus Headache

MSNBC published a story on April 26, 2012 regarding headaches that come and go with pressure changes such as when flying in an airplane.

The neurological researchers call it "airplane headache" and the story makes it sound like a newly discovered headache, but in actuality, it is something that has been known for a very long time.

Human sinus cavities are air-filled cavities. When outside pressure changes relative to the air pressure within the sinus cavity, air pressure literally increases or decreases within the sinus cavity which a patient may perceive as pain/pressure over the face. This barometric sinus pressure would occur ONLY if the sinuses are clogged shut. If they are open, no problems would occur.

This phenomenon is analogous to a balloon (sinus cavity) that increases in size with decreasing pressure (going up a mountain or ascending in a plane) or decreases in size with increasing pressure (going down a mountain or descending in a plane).

As such, just like the MSNBC story suggests, the principal way to prevent such barometric sinus headache is to take a medication that prevents sinuses from clogging shut. One of the most effective medication is afrin nasal decongestant nasal spray to be used 30-60 minutes before ascent and descent.

If this issue is a persistent chronic problem, surgical procedures such as balloon sinuplasty can be performed to make the sinus openings larger to decrease the chance of closure from mucosal edema. However, a study published in 2018 suggested that this procedure does NOT help barometric headaches and suggested that there may be something more going on, perhaps more neurologic.

Akin to barometric sinus pressure, the ears undergo a similar process which is why people "pop" the ears with pressure changes.

The ear equivalent of a barometric sinus headache is eustachian tube dysfunction.

Is flying giving you an 'airplane headache'? MSNBC 4/26/12

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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