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Astronauts Experience Migraine and Tension Headaches During Long Space Flights, Study Finds

A new study published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, has revealed that astronauts with no prior history of headaches may experience migraine and tension-type headaches during long-haul space flights lasting more than 10 days.

The study involved 24 astronauts from the European Space Agency, NASA, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who were assigned to International Space Station expeditions for up to 26 weeks between November 2011 and June 2018. Prior to the study, nine astronauts reported never having any headaches, and none had a history of recurrent headaches or a migraine diagnosis.

During their time in space, 22 astronauts experienced one or more episodes of headache, with a total of 378 headaches reported over 3,596 days. Researchers found that 92% of astronauts experienced headaches during flight, compared to just 38% before the flight.

“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. “Our study shows that headaches also occur later in space flight and could be related to an increase in pressure within the skull.”

Headaches were more intense and more likely to be migraine-like during the first week of space flight. In the three months after returning to Earth, none of the astronauts 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.”

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