What causes airplane headache?

Even the shortest flight can be stressful enough to make your head throb--crying babies, noise, long security lines, baggage fees--but stress isn't the cause of a head pain disorder called "airplane headache."

This specific type of headache was first documented in the medical literature in 2004 and more research is helping doctors understand how to diagnose the disorder. Italian scientists recently conducted the largest-scale study to date on airplane headache. They confirmed that airplane headache hurts on one side of the head and tends to affect men more than women. The pain is severe but lasts no more than a half hour, and typically occurs while the plane is landing.

Though the causes are still unknown, scientists think the pain results from an imbalance between cabin air pressure and the frontal sinuses. Some people's sinuses struggle to equalize to increasing barometric pressure during landing, explained Dr. Frederico Mainardi, a neurologist and co-author of the study.

While we wait for more conclusive findings, experts recommend you don't treat the headache unless you're experiencing repeat occurrences. "I don't think we should alarm the general public into taking something that could prevent a headache that may not be that prevalent," Dr. Seymor Diamond of the National Headache Foundation told MSNBC News.


Mainardi F, Lisotto C, et al. Headache attributed to airplane travel ('airplane headache'): clinical profile based on a large case series. Cephalalgia 2012; doi: 10.1177/0333102412441720.