Study Links Lightning Strikes To Headaches
January 24, 2013

Lightning Linked To Headaches, Cause Remains Unclear

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

For all the advancements that have been made in the field of medical science, there remain a number of mysteries. For instance, doctors and medical researchers are still trying to understand how headaches occur and, equally important, how they can be prevented and treated. Today, researchers from the University of Cincinnati (UC) published a study which claims that one cause of headaches could be lightning, yet another unpredictable force in nature.

The claim sounds almost as unusual as it does feasible. Previous research has linked certain weather conditions like humidity, seasons and air pressure to headaches. However, this research is the first to attempt to specifically link lightning to headaches and migraines rather than the ambient weather in which lightning occurs.

As the clouds rolled away, the father-son research team of Geoffrey and Vincent Martin concluded that when lightning struck nearby, headache sufferers had a 31 percent increase in headache occurrence while chronic migraine sufferers ran a 28 percent risk increase. These increases were observed for study participants within a 25-mile radius of a lightning strike. Even those who aren't normally prone to headaches saw an increased risk: 24 percent of these participants said they experienced a headache while 23 percent reported having a migraine.

"Many studies show conflicting findings on how weather, including elements like barometric pressure and humidity, affect the onset of headaches," said Geoffrey Martin, the younger of the duo and a fourth-year medical student at UC.

"However, this study very clearly shows a correlation between lightning, associated meteorological factors and headaches."

Geoffrey and his father Dr. Vincent Martin — a physician, professor in UC´s division of internal medicine and headache expert — selected participants from Ohio and Missouri who fulfilled the criteria for migraines as defined by the International Headache Society. These participants were then asked to keep a journal of their headaches for 3 to 6 months. While these participants were journaling their headaches, the Martin family busied themselves gathering location data on the occurrence of lightning in the area as well as recording the magnitude and polarity of the lightning.

"We used mathematical models to determine if the lightning itself was the cause of the increased frequency of headaches or whether it could be attributed to other weather factors encountered with thunderstorms," explained Dr. Martin.

"Our results found a 19 percent increased risk for headaches on lightning days, even after accounting for these weather factors. This suggests that lightning has its own unique effect on headache."

Dr. Martin also pointed out that negatively charged lightning bolts were more likely to cause headaches in those within a 25 mile range.

“There are a number of ways in which lightning might trigger headaches," said Dr. Martin. "Electromagnetic waves emitted from lightning could trigger headaches. In addition, lightning produces increases in air pollutants like ozone and can cause release of fungal spores that might lead to migraine."

Though theirs is the first to try and pinpoint an increase in headaches directly on negatively charged bursts of energy, the two still claim there could be many other reasons for the apparent link between an unpredictable weather phenomenon and a mysterious medical condition.

"This study gives some insight into the tie between headaches or migraines, lightning and other meteorologic factors," said the younger Martin in closing.

"However, the exact mechanisms through which lightning and/or its associated meteorologic factors trigger headache are unknown, although we do have speculations. Ultimately, the effect of weather on headache is complex, and future studies will be needed to define more precisely the role of lightning and thunderstorms on headache."

This new study was published today in the online journal Cephalalgia.