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Study finds link between space flight and headaches

  • April 3, 2024
  • 3 min read
Study finds link between space flight and headaches

Zero gravity and space travel can take a significant toll on the human body and a new study has found that astronauts who had no previous history of headaches could experience migraines and tension-type headaches during long-haul space flights, including those of over 10 days in space. The study was published by the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Changes in gravity caused by space flight affect the function of many parts of the body, including the brain,” said study author W. P. J. van Oosterhout, MD, PhD, of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

“The vestibular system, which affects balance and posture, has to adapt to the conflict between the signals it is expecting to receive and the actual signals it receives in the absence of normal gravity. This can lead to space motion sickness in the first week, of which headache is the most frequently reported symptom. Our study shows that headaches also occur later in space flight and could be related to an increase in pressure within the skull.”

The study involved 24 astronauts from the European Space Agency, NASA, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. They spent time in the International Space Station for up to 26 weeks between November 2011 and June 2018.  Before the study, nine had never reported any headaches while three had a headache that affected daily activities over the previous year. None had ever been diagnosed with migraines or had a history of recurrent headaches.

Of the 24 participants, 22 had experienced one or more across the total of 3,596 days in space for all astronauts. They completed health screenings and a questionnaire about headache history before the flight. While in space, the filled in daily questionnaires for the first week and a weekly questionnaire each week following their time in the space station. 378 headaches were reported in flight.

The researchers found that 92% of astronauts experienced headaches compared to just 38% of them experiencing headaches before the flight. 170 or 90% were tension-type while 19 or 10% were migraines. Researchers also noted that headaches were of a higher intensity and more likely to be migraines over the first week of space flight. However, in the three months after returning to Earth, none had reported any headaches.  

“Further research is needed to unravel the underlying causes of space headache and explore how such discoveries may provide insights into headaches occurring on Earth,” said Van Oosterhout. “Also, more effective therapies need to be developed to combat space headaches as for many astronauts this a major problem during space flights.”

This does not prove that going to space causes headaches but does show an association. One limitation was that astronauts reported their own symptoms, meaning that they may not have remembered everything accurately.  

The study was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

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