Lightning Identified as Possible Migraine Trigger

Teri Robert @trobert Health Guide
  • Many people with Migraines point to changes in the weather as one of their strongest Migraine triggers. Studies on high barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity have produced contradictory results. Now a study suggests that lightning may well be a trigger.

    The study

    Study aim:

    The study was conducted "to determine if lightning is associated with the frequency of headache in migraineurs."1

    Study methods:

    • Study participants meeting the International Headache Society criteria for Migraine were recruited from sites in Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri.
    • There were 23 participants from Cincinnati and 67 from St. Louis, for a total of 90 study participants
    • Participants completed a daily Migraine diary for three to six months, including:
      • presence or absence of Migraine;
      • the peak severity of the Migraine on a scale of zero to 10;
      • Migraine symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and phonophobia.
    • Data on the location, current, and polarity of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes was obtained for the Cincinnati and St. Louis areas for the time period of the study.
    • Surface weather variables were recorded hourly from ground stations in the areas. The surface weather variables included:
      • dry bulb temperature,
      • relative humidity,
      • wind speed,
      • wind direction,
      • barometric pressure,
      • and precipitation.
    • Data on other weather measurements was also obtained:
      • isolation (a measure of solar radiation),
      • convection available potential energy (CAPE), and
      • lifted index (LI).

    Study results:*

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    • Overall frequency of headache increased by 31% on lightning days.
    • Overall frequency of Migraine days increased by 28%.
    • Every 20kA decrease in the average current of lightning resulted in a 6% increase in the frequency of headache and an 8% increase of Migraine, indicating that days of lightning strikes with greater negative polarity resulted in increased frequency of Migraine and headache.
    • The average current of lightning was significant in predicting headache, but not Migraine.
    • Proposed mechanisms by which lightning and its associated meteorological factors could trigger Migraines:
      • Low-frequency electromagnetic waves called sferics that are produced by electrical storms.
      • Charged ions produced by electrical storms.
      • Irritable aerosols that are produced by electrical storms such as nitrogen oxides and ozone.
      • Negative ions produced by lightning that could produce more allergenic fungal spores.

    * Clarifying headache vs. Migraine: The authors note that the study outcome measure for headache was less stringent than that for Migraine, and that the headache outcome included all headaches, regardless of their characteristics. They believe that both figures reflect Migraine since all of the study participants were Migraineurs, and headaches may have been Migraines that were in their early or late stages. Additionally, they note that early treatment with abortive medications may have prevented some Migraines from fully developing.


    Study conclusions:

    The authors concluded:

  • "This study suggests that lightning represents a trigger for headache in migraineurs that cannot be completely explained by other meteorological factors. It is unknown if lightning directly triggers headaches through electromagnetic waves or indirectly through production of bioaerosols (e.g. ozone), induction of fungal spores or other mechanisms. These results should be interpreted cautiously until replicated in a second dataset."1

    Summary and comments:

    Especially for those of us who have found weather related triggers for our Migraines, this is a very interesting study. Further studies of lightning and other weather related issues could be quite valuable as they could add to research on the pathophysiology of Migraines and how triggers work.

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    1 Martin, Geoffrey V.; Houle, Timothy; Nicholson, Robert; Peterlin, Albert; Martin, Vincent T. "Lightning and its association with the frequency of headache in migraineurs: An observational cohort study." Cephalalgia. Published online before print January 24, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0333102412474502.


    2 Seaman, Andrew M. "Nearby lightning may be linked to migraines." Reuters Health. January 25, 2013.

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    Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape© Teri Robert, 2013.
    Last updated February 18, 2013.

Published On: February 19, 2013