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Astronauts report space headaches during long missions

Have you ever wondered if astronauts get headaches in space? It may seem trivial but a recent study from the American Academy of Neurology reveals that even seasoned astronauts experience space headaches.

Moreover, astronauts without any history of headaches can experience both migraines and tension-type headaches while on long missions in space.

Space headaches in astronauts

The study followed 24 astronauts who spent up to 26 weeks on the International Space Station. Before their missions, only a handful of them had occasional headaches.

Shockingly, 92% of these astronauts experienced headaches during their flights. This is a significant increase from the 38% who reported headaches before heading for the stars. The majority were tension-type headaches, but around 10% were migraines.

The first week in space seemed to be the worst, with headaches hitting harder and more frequently. After returning to Earth, the astronauts’ headaches completely disappeared.

The vestibular system

“Changes in gravity caused by space flight affect the function of many parts of the body, including the brain,” explained Dr. W. P. J. van Oosterhout, the study’s author.

Our vestibular system, which is key for balance and posture, becomes confused in space. It’s used to the pull of Earth’s gravity, and the absence of that force leads to disorientation. This is one of the major causes of space motion sickness, and as it turns out, might also trigger headaches.

Dr. van Oosterhout believes that space headaches could be linked to increased pressure inside the skull. In zero gravity, fluids in the body tend to shift upwards. This could lead to more pressure on the brain, potentially causing 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,” noted Dr. van Oosterhout. “Also, more effective therapies need to be developed to combat space headaches, as for many astronauts, this is a major problem during space flights.”

Space headaches insights

While space headaches seem like a niche concern, the insights gained could shed light on chronic headache disorders we experience on Earth. For example, researchers might discover shared triggers relating to pressure changes or fluid shifts within the skull. This could lead to new treatment options or ways to identify those at risk of such conditions.

Mountain climbers and pilots sometimes experience headaches or dizziness at high altitudes. Moreover, studying the mechanisms behind space headaches could translate into better prevention and management methods for those who operate in such environments.

The technologies used to monitor the physiological changes in astronauts might find applications on Earth. Perhaps we’ll see the development of non-invasive devices for detecting cranial pressure changes, helpful for diagnosing various medical conditions.

Study significance

As ambitious space travel projects become more realistic, understanding and developing treatment for space headaches will be crucial. Astronauts on extended missions won’t have the luxury of easily returning to Earth, making managing these unexpected health issues essential.

It’s another reminder that while space exploration is extraordinary, it comes with a host of unique challenges for the extraordinary humans doing the exploring.

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

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