Love to ski, hike or travel but experience head pain when you do? Don’t let head pain or migraine stop you from doing what you love. 

Individuals traveling to high altitudes have long complained about headaches as they ascend into the mountains. Headaches were common in individuals who traveled along ancient silk routes in Asia. The mountains in the region were known as Great Headache Mountain and Little Headache Mountain.

Some modern research has also found that headache occurs more frequently at high altitude. These studies followed people living in the South American Andes and soldiers of the Indian Army. These groups regularly travel between sea level and heights up to 6,000 meters in the Himalayas.

Other studies have shown that headache occurs in almost half of those who climb, trek or ski at heights over 9,900 feet. 

Headache at high altitudes was even an issue during the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Mexico City, which has an altitude of 2,300 meters, had a greater prevalence of headaches among athletes than Games held at lower altitudes.

But you get used to it, right? Wrong. Migraine headaches can be commonplace in people with chronic exposure to high altitudes. For example, a research study of 379 adult men who lived more than 10 years in Peru at an altitude of 14,200 feet showed headaches were still common despite living at that height for so long. The study found that nearly half – 47 percent – reported head pain. Of these 47 percent, 32 percent had a migraine, while 15 percent had tension-type headaches. 

Not only do you not outgrow headaches at high altitudes, but it also gets worse with age. 

The study found that the rate of migraine and tension-type headaches increased with age in this group of people – the opposite of what happened to individuals at sea level. 

One theory for this is that lungs are less efficient in supplying the body with oxygen as we age. When combined with high altitudes, blood oxygen levels can decrease even further among those at higher altitudes. 

Acute Mountain Sickness

Acute mountain sickness and high-altitude headaches are now recognized as a condition affecting almost a quarter of those who travel to 8,500 feet or higher above sea level. One of the most prominent symptoms of AMS is severe headache, as well as:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue or feeling weak

Some individuals may have mild symptoms, while others have more severe effects of altitude sickness and altitude headaches.

Some of the factors that contribute to the development of AMS include where an individual was born, acclimatization in the week before traveling to high altitudes, how fast altitude changes, and how many days of rest a climber has during the ascent. Another theory about the cause of AMS head pain is the possible swelling of blood vessels, which may cause increased pressure on the head. 

Of these factors, rest days were the most influential variable when it came to altitude illness.

The pain of the headache is usually very intense (like migraines), and it can throb (like a migraine). AMS head pain is typically generalized or in the forehead. 

AMS head pain can develop between six hours and four days of one’s arrival to a high-altitude place. However, this headache can last as long as five days. 

AMS headaches can get worse with coughing, straining or lying flat. It can also get worse with exertion. 

In many cases, AMS-related headaches go away after descent to sea level. 

Treatment of Acute Mountain Sickness

What should you do if you’re traveling to a place of high altitude and develop an AMS headache? 

For some, taking ibuprofen can help ease their discomfort. In addition, some migraine medications have also helped bring relief for some individuals.

You can take other steps to avoid head pain or limit your discomfort when traveling to areas with very high altitudes. These steps include: 

Staying hydrated. Drink at least five 8-ounce glasses of water before reaching a higher altitude and continue drinking water while that far above sea level. 

Go up gradually. If possible, we recommend that you gradually travel to a high altitude and rest/limit activity to allow your body time to adjust to the altitude and decreased oxygen in your blood. 

Sleep at lower elevations. If you are hiking or skiing at high altitudes (above 8,500 feet), we recommend that you stay/sleep in accommodations at lower levels (below 7,500 feet if possible). 

Talk to us. Do you struggle with migraines, or do you have a history of head pain at high altitudes? We can help. 

We know and understand migraine attacks and head pain. We are here for you.  We can also help treat sinus headache, cluster headache and tension-type headaches that negatively impact your day-to-day life.