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Lightning may be giving you a headache

A lightning strikes over Danube river in the city of Bratislava, Slovakia in July.
A lightning strikes over Danube river in the city of Bratislava, Slovakia in July.Marian Peiger / EPA file

As a headache expert at the University of Cincinnati Heath Center, Dr. Vincent Martin treated a lot of patients who complained that the weather made their migraines and headaches worse. As he peppered them with questions about what type of weather affected their headaches the most, he began noticing a trend. People experienced more headaches during thunder and lightning storms.  

But there existed little scientific proof to back up the anecdotal evidence. So Martin -- and his son, Geoffrey Martin, a fourth year medical student at the University of Cincinnati -- decided to do something about it. 

They asked 90 people with a history of migraines, from either Cincinnati or St. Louis, to keep daily journals for three to six months. In the journals, the patients recorded their symptoms, including the severity of the pain, any sensitivity to light and noise, and the duration of the pain. Then the researchers compared the journal information to data detailing when thunder and lightning storms occurred.

They found that when a lightning storm took place within 25 miles of a person’s home, they were 31 percent more likely to suffer from a headache and 28 percent more likely to experience a migraine. 

“[We’re] really excited with the results and it's the first study of its type,” says Martin. “No one has really shown that lightning itself triggers migraines.”

The duo used mathematical models to isolate lightning’s impact on headaches, excluding information about heat, humidity and other meteorological events. Even controlling for other factors, the evidence shows that lightning increases a person’s chance of suffering from a headache by 19 percent. 

“We don’t know 100 percent for sure why lightning provokes headaches,” Martin says, adding that the two have some theories.

Lightning strikes produce extra ozone, perhaps irritating headache sufferers. Also, the extreme conditions that lightning occurs in could release allergens, such as fungal spores, in higher amounts, leading to more headaches. Or the electromagnetic waves trigger the headaches. Martin notes that storms include tens of thousands of strike drastically changing the air’s ionization, leading to more head pain.

“Weather is one of the most common things we talk about on a daily basis. Weather influences every aspect of our lives,” Marin says. “[The study] needs to be replicated. [But it’s the] very first study showing that lightning is at the onset of [headaches].”

The report appears in the journal Cephalalgia.


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