Although research proving the existence of ‘Chinook migraines’ in Calgary has only been developed within the last 15 years, treatment for these headaches is rapidly evolving.
In 2000, Dr. Werner Becker, a professor at the department of clinical neurosciences at the University of Calgary, coauthored one of the first studies that proved Chinook winds increase the probability of migraine headaches in a subset of migraine sufferers in Calgary.
Chinook winds, which are caused by moist weather patterns that originate along the Pacific coast, cause severe drops in humidity and have been known to raise temperatures by more than 20 degrees in only a few hours.
Although many Calgarians look forward to this spike in temperature amidst a brutally cold winter, at least 12 per cent of the population suffers from ‘Chinook’ migraines, which are caused by the sudden weather change.
Becker, who specializes in headache treatment, is also the founding director of the Calgary Headache Assessment Management Program (CHAMP), which offers alternative therapy for migraine sufferers.
The program, which utilizes more than 20 medical professionals including neurologists, psychologists, kinesiologists, and occupational therapists, specializes in multidisciplinary headache management.
“Chinook winds are the most powerful weather systems that affect migraine patients… Other weather changes can affect people too, but it just depends on the individual,” said Becker, who sees many patients that suffer from combination headaches, which are made worse by changes in humidity.
While traditionally, migraine headaches have been treated with medications like Imitrex and Toradol, CHAMP focuses on preventing migraines through education and attention to lifestyle.
“Patients are asked to attend an education session, and from there they go on to a two-hour session with a neurologist where treatment is discussed,” said Becker.
After a lifestyle assessment, patients take part in a self-management program where various avenues of non-medication headache control are explored.
“Our main therapy is attention to lifestyle. No skipping meals, regular bed times, that sort of thing,” said Becker.
“We suggest physiotherapy if a patient has neck problems, while acupuncture has been shown to reduce the number of migraine attacks in some patients too.”
Becker discourages patients from reaching for the medicine cabinet every time a Chinook blows in, as migraine medication can actually increase the number of headaches a patient has if it is overused.
Dr. Sameena Merchant of SAIT Polytechnic’s on-campus clinic sees many students that suffer from Chinook migraines, and though she often prescribes medication, she said that some students find relief through other methods of treatment as well.
“IMS, or intramuscular stimulation, is similar to acupuncture in that it uses needles, but it goes deeper than traditional Chinese acupuncture and can relieve tension that causes migraines. I’ve prescribed it to students suffering from combination Chinook and tension migraines and it has worked well,” said Merchant.
Carol Stone, a second year student at SAIT who moved to Calgary from London, England nearly two years ago, suffers from Chinook migraines and has tried a variety of alternative treatments including aromatherapy, heat therapy, and acupressure.
“It’s hard to find something that works. I’ve tried every ‘icy-hot’ cream, every smelly aromatherapy oil, and they don’t do much,” said Stone.
“I hate taking medications, and alternative therapy can get expensive when you’re a student,” she said.
“It’s gotten to the point where I just deal with the pain now.”
Janine Ledingham, a Calgary native and first year student at SAIT Polytechnic, is also a migraine sufferer and has considered different types of treatment for her headaches.
“[My headaches] are very severe. I usually take Tylenol and then I have to sit in a dark room with no sound and I tell everyone to leave me alone,” said Ledingham, whose life as a student is often interrupted by the severity of her headaches.
“I should go somewhere for [other] treatment but I’m afraid of needles so I wouldn’t get acupuncture,” she said.
Dr. Becker and the team at CHAMP continue to participate in clinical trials and evaluate new methods of treatment. He said that, although there is a waitlist to get into the program, new patients are typically accepted in 60 days or less.