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"Space Headache" a New Type of Astronaut Affliction?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2009
 
The many headaches of living and working in space include, well, actual headaches, according to a new astronaut survey.

The survey found that astronauts who did not normally have severe headaches on Earth reported disabling headaches during space missions, according to study author Alla Vein, of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Many of the space veterans said they experienced "exploding" or "heavy feeling" headaches during spaceflights and extended stays aboard the International Space Station.

Vein can't definitively explain the cause of these sensations. But the survey, detailed this week in the journal Cephalalgia, did clear the most commonly cited culprit—space motion sickness.

More than 70 percent of the 17 anonymous astronauts surveyed reported headache problems during spaceflight. Three-quarters of those affected had no nausea, vomiting, vertigo, or other symptoms of space motion sickness.

As a result of the survey, Vein is proposing that "space headache" be classified as a new type of ailment linked to human spaceflight.

(Related: "Human Guinea Pig to Blast Off With Space Shuttle.")

Puffy Face, Bad Air

Former Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, of McMaster University's Centre for Medical Robotics in Hamilton, Ontario, recently co-authored a Canadian Medical Association Journal article on the long-term health risks of space travel.

There are likely a number of different reasons why astronauts—including himself—have experienced headaches in space, Williams said.

One is "puffy face syndrome," which you might approximate on Earth by standing on your head for an extended period.

"In the absence of gravity, the fluids that normally pool in the lower extremities shift to other parts of your body," Williams explained.

Poor air circulation could also play a role. Astronauts working in certain areas of a spacecraft might lose the benefit of oxygen-circulating fans and end up breathing a local buildup of excess carbon dioxide.

Finally, the unique environment of space might not always be the main reason for cranial pain, Williams said.

"Astronauts can also get headaches for the same reasons they might get them on Earth."
 

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