In the thick of the pandemic, this much is clear: You must wear a face mask for safety. You don’t want to transmit the virus, and you certainly don’t want to get it. But is your mask giving you a headache?
Headache doctors say that longtime mask-wearing can induce compression headache, a phenomenon also noted in a recent small study of Covid-19 healthcare workers. In people with migraine, those headaches can trigger a migraine attack. However, doctors caution, that’s no reason to give up on masks! Rather, if you suspect your headaches are linked to mask-wearing, it’s important to figure out how to adapt, so you can safely get through the months ahead.
Why Face Masks Can Cause Migraine
Compression headache is caused by external forces continuously pressing on the head. Typically, it’s from wearing tight-fitting headgear like swim goggles or a helmet. Doctors tend to see these headaches most often in the likes of construction workers, athletes, police officers, firefighters or military personnel. In the same way, tight-fitting face masks can put pressure on sensitive nerves and their blood vessels, causing inflammation.
Headache doctors have noticed these common trouble spots in mask-induced headaches:
- Elastic ear loops pressing on the sensitive nerves around the ears
- N95 masks pressing on the nose and ears
- Face shields and goggles pressing on the forehead and temples
Anyone can get a compression headache. But people with migraine may be especially sensitive, in particular people with allodynia, who have highly sensitive scalps.
Mask-Wearing Tips to Avoid Headache
Try a different style. Think about where your mask-related pain originates from, then find a style of mask that avoids that sensitive area. The most common styles have elastic ear loops. But the “duck bill” style N95 mask has two elastic straps worn behind the head. Cloth face masks are typically more comfortable than surgical or N95 masks. Perhaps varying two different styles would help. Find what works for you.
Try a different size. Face masks should have a nice tight fit, but also be comfortable enough for long wear: If you’re constantly fiddling with your mask or taking it off, you may be defeating the purpose of wearing it in the first place. Masks come in a variety of sizes, from kids to adult XXL, so look for the right fit. Bear in mind, you’re looking to cover your face from the bridge of your nose to the tip of your chin, a measurement that has little correlation to your height or weight.
Take occasional mask breaks – away from others. Compression headaches typically stop after the headgear is removed, so at the first sign of pain, find a safe place to take off your mask. Better yet, if you’re wearing a mask for a long period of time, take regular breaks to prevent head pain in the first place.
Talk to your doctor. If you’ve tried all of the above without success, you may need to raise your migraine threshold to get you through this exceptional period of time. Your doctor may want to prescribe you with a preventive medication, or raise your dosage, to allow you to comfortably wear your mask. Safety first, always.
Yes, masks can be irritating, and might even trigger headaches – but they’re essential right now. As long as this pandemic lasts, each of us will need to figure out how to adapt the collective imperative of wearing a mask to the needs of our individual migraine sensitivities. Through some trial and error we can get it done, so that each of us can do our part.
For more in our Covid-19 and Migraine series, read “The Surprising Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Migraine.”