The possible causes of ‘space headache’

A new study has surveyed 17 astronauts to see what sort of headaches they experienced while on space missions. Headaches were much more frequent than on earth and didn’t fit a known type, suggesting that zero or micro gravity may be a specific trigger for a pounding head.

Below is the part of the article where the researchers discuss how the weightless conditions of space might affect the brain to cause the headache.

To describe headache, most astronauts used terms such as ‘exploding’ and/or ‘a heavy feeling’, confirming previous observations and suggesting a change in intracranial pressure. This is compatible with headache attributed to disorders of homeostasis, which can change during a state of microgravity. Certain haemodynamic [blood flow] changes might explain the occurrence of space headache. Alteration of cerebral blood flow and volume have been shown during exposure to microgravity.

The most striking change is the cephalad fluid shift, when body fluid redistributes and the blood volume in the upper body increases. The fluid shift towards the brain and probable brain oedema [swelling] could lead to an increase in intracranial pressure. Insofar as microgravity is also known to induce hypoxia [reduced oxygen supply to brain tissue], it also might be considered as a plausible trigger for space headache

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to write-up from BBC News.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer R. Ewing
    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Well, no kidding.
    I have hydrocephalus. There are two large and two small sacs inside the brain called ventricles. These ventricles hold cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which lubricates the brain and spinal cord. When you have hydrocephalus, fluid can enter into, but cannot escape from, the ventricles. The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is to install a shunt, or drainage tube. A small hole is drilled into, usually, the left side of the skull. A tube is then inserted into the third ventricle, then threaded back out the drilled hole to the outside of the skull, where they place a valve assembly which facilitates CSF flow down the length of the tubing. The distal end of the tube is usually in the abdominal cavity, or peritoneum. The peritoneum acts like a sponge, which absorbs the CSF as it exits the tubing. That type of shunt is referred to as a VP, or ventriculo-peritoneal, shunt.
    I currently have a VA, or ventriculo-atrial, shunt in place, on my right side. The distal end of the tube actually goes into a vein leading into my heart, hence the name.
    When I was younger, and had a VP shunt, I had a terrible time flying on airplanes. The pressurized cabin, and the change in altitude, likely contributed to my discomfort. When I was in high school, I had my fifteenth surgery to replace my VP shunt. That VP shunt lasted fifteen years, and during that time flying was nearly painless for me. My doctors surmise that my shunt was most likely overdraining, and my body developed the ability to compensate for the overdrainage, so the pressure changes in flying didn’t bother me so much.
    In 2004, that shunt was replaced with a right-sided VA shunt. Since then, my discomfort flying in planes has returned with a vengeance. Ascent is painful, flying itself is mildly uncomfortable, but descending is literally a white knuckle experience for me every time, regardless of of the pilot’s skill or the weather conditions. And I particularly feel a white-hot streak of pain radiating from the valve just above and behind my right ear, all the way down the shunt track leading into my heart.
    So I’m totally unsurprised by the last paragraph of this article. Perhaps it’s not so obvious to a “normal” person, but it makes perfect sense to me that, if I have difficulty tolerating cross-country plane flights, healthy astronauts might have difficulty tolerating spaceflight. I (literally) feel their pain.


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