BACKGROUND: To assess the prevalence of headache attributed to aeroplane travel (AH) in patients referred to Italian Headache Centres.
MATERIAL AND METHOD: 869 consecutive patients visiting six Italian headache centres during a 6 month-period (October 2013 to March 2014) were enrolled in the survey. Among them, 136 (15.6%) had never flown and therefore were excluded from the study. The remaining 733 patients (f = 586, m = 147; age 39.1 ± 17.3) were asked about the occurrence of headache attacks during flight; those who answered the question positively filled in a detailed questionnaire that allowed the features of the attacks to be defined.
RESULTS: Headache attacks during the flight was reported by 34/733 subjects; four presented attacks fulfilling ICHD-3 beta (1) criteria for migraine without aura and therefore were not further considered. The features of the remaining 30 (4.0%; m = 18, f = 12, age 36.4 ± 7.3) completely fulfilled the ICHD-3 beta criteria for AH. In more detail, the pain was unilateral (fronto-orbital: n = 23; fronto-parietal: n = 7; without side-shift: n = 25, with side-shift: n = 5), lasting up to 30 min in 29 subjects. All the patients reported the pain as very severe or unbearable and landing as the phase of travel in which the attack appeared. In four cases, a postictal, milder, dull headache could last up to 24 hours. Accompanying symptoms were present in eight cases (restlessness: n = 5; conjunctival injection and tearing: n = 2; restlessness + ipsilateral conjunctival injection and tearing: n = 1). The fear of experiencing further attacks negatively affected the propensity for future flights in 90.0% of subjects (n = 27). In all the patients, AH onset did not coincide with the first flight experience. Concomitant migraine without aura was diagnosed in 24, tension-type headache in four, migraine without aura + tension-type headache in two cases; none suffered from cluster headache. Five subjects reported AH on each flight, 20 in > 50% of flights, five occasionally. Despite the severe intensity of the pain, only one third of this sample spontaneously reverted to a pharmacological treatment; the most useful strategy combines a decongestant nasal spray plus the intake of a simple analgesic 30 min before the estimated attack. Spontaneous manoeuvres were applied by 18 patients (Valsalva-like: n = 12; compression: n = 2; both manoeuvres: n = 4), more often without significant improvement. These data confirm our previous finding on the clinical features of AH.
CONCLUSION: AH was found in 4.0% of a multicentre, large sample of patients with flight experiences. Although limited to a sample of patients followed in six Italian headache centres, to the best of our knowledge these are the first epidemiological data on AH gathered by direct interview. If properly investigated, AH seems to be a not infrequent condition, which, when diagnosed, could probably be prevented in many cases.