Catalyst, Weeklies

Lightning’s striking effect on migraines

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati say lightning striking nearby makes chronic migraine sufferers 31 percent more likely to have a headache, and 28 percent more likely to have a migraine. Photo Illustration by Kiera Blessing

It’s easy to ignore a grandparent who says a storm is coming because their knees are “acting up.” It’s even more ridiculous to think that Karen from “Mean Girls” knows when it will rain, thanks to her cleavage. But a new study suggests that people who suffer from migraines may actually be able to tell when lightning has been striking nearby.


What researchers found

Fourth-year medical student, Geoffrey Martin, and his father, Doctor Vincent Martin, a professor of Internal Medicine, conducted a study at the University of Cincinnati that revealed that chronic migraine sufferers have a 31 percent higher risk of headache and a 28 percent higher risk of migraine on days lightning has struck within 25 miles of their home.

“So basically, on days with lightning, compared to days without lightning, there was actually 31 percent more people that had a headache on those days with lightning compared to not having lightning,” Geoffrey said.

The father-son duo said they analyzed several issues when evaluating the results, such as how lightning directly affects headaches and migraines.

However, the Martins also considered other weather factors often associated with lightning, such as barometric pressure, temperature, precipitation, humidity and wind.

This, Geoffrey said, allowed them to validate that lightning was truly causing the increase in headache frequency.

The study, published in the journal Cephalalgia on Jan. 24, showed that even when other weather factors were accounted for in mathematical models, there was still a 19 percent increased risk of headache on lightning-striking days.

“It was still statistically significant in our population,” Geoffrey said. “Lightning still had an effect on headaches beyond the meteorological factors that are often associated with lightning, such as high winds during a storm or rain, or high temperatures or high humidity.”

The researchers were also concerned about the long lifespans of headaches and migraines. Geoffrey said the life span of migraines often last more than one day.

The research also considered participants who may have suffered a headache prior to lightning, suggesting their headaches were not a direct result of the weather.

To account for this discrepancy, Geoffrey said he added a control variable to the model — he and his father accounted for the presence of headaches lasting up to two days prior to lightning storms. This variable reduced participants’ increased risk of headache from 31 to 24 percent and migraine from 28 percent to 23 percent.

“It’s like a weird Snapple fact,” said Boston University College of Communication sophomore Hannah Landers.

Like Landers, Jinzhu Wu, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the new information was surprising.

“Usually the storm will scare people, but the lightning will only give us some tension that there will be some pretty terrifying noise,” she said.

Wu said this study might further people’s fear of lightning.


How they did it

For their study, the Martins researched detailed headache journals from 100 chronic migraine sufferers from previous studies at the University of Cincinnati and the University of St. Louis, Geoffrey said. These journals recorded activity during three-to-six-month periods.

“They were recruited in our study from other studies, actually, in which they recorded in a diary or journal their headache activity; whether they had a headache that day or not, their pain scale on that day, and whether they had nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or noise,” Geoffrey said.

Participants in the study exhibiting such symptoms were labeled as chronic sufferers, or someone who suffers from at least one migraine a month. Geoffrey said a doctor diagnosed this condition using the International Headache Society Criteria.

Participants from Cincinnati recorded their journals between 1998 and 2001 while participants from St. Louis recorded theirs from 2008 to 2010, Geoffrey said.

Geoffrey said he and his father compared this information to weather data recorded during the same time periods. This helped them determine whether or not patients had increased headache activity on specific weather days.

The participants used were 91 percent female with an average age of 44. Geoffrey said that migraine patients are predominantly female, with women making up between 70 and 80 percent of sufferers.

He also said that migraines are generally worse before women reach menopause, resulting in a generally younger population of sufferers.

“We did throw in both age and gender into our models as covariates,” Geoffrey said. “Those did not affect our results in any way.”


Why it happens

In a recent press release, Vincent said there were two possible causes for this strange occurrence.

“Electromagnetic waves emitted from lightning could trigger headaches,” Vincent said in the release Jan. 24. “In addition, lightning produces increases in air pollutants like ozone and can cause release of fungal spores that might lead to migraine.”

“I know that in laboratory studies that various electromagnetic fields can induce EEG [Electroencephalograms] changes,” Geoffrey added to his father’s statement.


What it means

The answer, according to Geoffrey, is not a whole lot yet.

The weather cannot be controlled, so migraine sufferers will have to deal with Mother Nature’s wrath for now.

To prevent migraines, Geoffrey said people should move to areas that are less prone to lightning. Unfortunately this is not a quick fix. However, Geoffrey suggested other headache prevention methods.

“You can’t really control the weather on a day-to-day basis, but you can do individual measures, such as things that are important in preventing offensive migraines,” he said.

He recommended getting adequate rest and staying hydrated, as well as keeping pain relievers on hand.

He also suggested that chronic sufferers with more serious conditions seek professional help and prescription medications.

“The problem is no one really knows when they’re going to have an attack so obviously if someone’s [attacks are] frequent enough, they’re just on the medication every day,” Geoffrey said. “But otherwise it’s very hard to determine when they should be taking these kinds of preventative migraine medications.”

Heeding the Martins’ study, sufferers might check weather forecasts and take medications in preparation for upcoming storms.

Even people without prescription medications can prepare by taking pain relievers at the first sign of a headache, rather than ignoring a slight discomfort and allowing it to develop into a full-blown migraine.


Student Responses

Simone Rauch, a CAS sophomore, said she did not have many ideas when asked what the findings could be used for.

“I mean, nothing really,” Rauch said. “You can’t just tell the lightning not to be near headache sufferers, right?”

However Melissa Yee, a CAS junior, said she has hope for the new study.

“I get migraines constantly,” Yee said. “I don’t know if lightning would necessarily correlate with that, but I hope it does. Then maybe I could prevent some of my major headaches.”

Geoffrey said he will continue to study the weather-headache paradigm in an attempt to develop better methods of migraine control.

“We’re going to start looking at more complex weather patterns,” he said, “such that we’re going to be looking at intricate relationships between some of the individual weather variables.”