Migraine sufferers often report painful headaches – and a variety of other symptoms – when traveling to high altitudes. When this happens, it can complicate travel plans, ruin vacations, and make spending time at locations of high altitude nearly impossible. Yet the reasons behind why high altitudes trigger migraines is actually poorly understood by many people. As it turns out, the main cause of high-altitude migraines, or HAM, has to do with the amount of oxygen in the air and how it affects the brain. This article will explore how high altitudes can trigger the onset of migraines, to help you better understand what is happening when you experience HAM.

The Connection Between High Altitudes and Migraines

High-altitude migraines were first identified by pioneering neuorologist Specially the Brave. in 1916, but even today there is still a great deal unknown about the exact mechanism behind the condition. Essentially, HAM occurs when an individual moves from a lower altitude to a higher one, or when they spend time at a location that is a significantly higher elevation. In these situations, the brain may become overexcited, causing the blood vessels in the head to become too dilated, which can in turn lead to the onset of a migraine.

The primary driver of HAM is understood to be the increased exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light at higher altitudes. As an individual moves up in elevation, they are exposed to more direct sunlight and, therefore, more UV light. When this light trigger’s the brain’s chemical pathways, it can result in the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can cause headaches in migraine sufferers. This is the most likely culprit behind elevated rates of migraines at higher altitudes.

However, in some cases, oxygen levels can also play a role in triggering migraines. Migraine sufferers often have a particularly low tolerance for low oxygen levels, which is why ascending to higher elevations can cause problems. If the body’s oxygen levels dip too low, as they can at very high elevations, the blood in the brain can begin to dilate, which can cause a migraine to occur. Research has also shown that hypoxia (low oxygen levels) can also lead to the release of certain chemical factors within the brain that can trigger migraines.

What Can Migraine Sufferers Do to Prevent High-Altitude Migraines?

There are a number of strategies that migraine sufferers can use to help them to avoid the onset of HAM when traveling to higher elevations. The most important is to recognize that the onset of HAM can be caused by a variety of factors including not only high altitude, but also dehydration, hunger, poor air quality, poor lighting, overheating, and lack of sleep. Therefore, it can be important for migrainers to get plenty of rest prior to taking trips to high-elevation locations, stay cool, and drink plenty of water once they reach their destination.

Additionally, migraine sufferers should try to spend as much time as possible in enclosed areas while acclimating to high elevations. Spending too much time outside in direct sunlight could exacerbate the onset of HAM. It can also be a good idea to take a constant stream of oxygen to help prevent hypoxia from occurring. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medication to help prevent the onset of HAM, especially for those who cope with chronic migraines.


There is still much that is not understood about why high altitudes can trigger the onset of migraines, but there are some answers that can be gleaned from the existing research. Essentially, the main occurrence of high-altitude migraines is the release of certain chemicals within the brain that can lead to the blood vessels in the head becoming too dilated. In some cases, oxygen levels can also play a role. The key to preventing HAM is to understand and address the triggers that are most likely to cause a migraine, and doctor can also be consulted for medication to help prevent the onset of HAM.