Study: Lightning May Trigger Headaches

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Stormy weather seems to be a bad omen for the migraine-prone. Yet another argument for using medical research funding for weather-control technology?

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Adrees Latif/Reuters

PROBLEM: People who suffer from migraines know to keep an eye on the weather -- heat and low atmospheric pressure are associated with increased headaches. Others have suggested that they suffer more during storms, but although there is nice poetic resonance thunderstorms and inner tempests, previous studies have been unable to prove whether there's a true association.

METHODOLOGY: Participants -- mostly female -- in Cincinnati and St. Louis who chronically suffer from migraines recorded their daily headaches for three to six months. Meanwhile, father-son researchers Vincent and Geoffrey Martin used sensors to detect electromagnetic radiation caused by lightning striking ground within 25 miles of the participants' homes.

RESULTS: Headaches increased in frequency by 31 percent, and migraines by 28 percent, on days when lightning occurred. New migraines and headaches also increased by 23 and 24 percent on lightning days. 

When the Martins controlled for other weather conditions that come along with lightning and that may have been affecting headaches, like air pressure and humidity, lightning continued to uniquely account for anywhere from 35 to 45 percent of the headaches and migraines. 

CONCLUSION: Lightning is correlated with, and potentially a trigger for, headaches in migraine patients.

IMPLICATIONS: The atmospheric conditions of a thunderstorm are extraordinary: When lightning strikes, the chemical composition of atmosphere changes, low-frequency electromagnetic waves are emitted, ions are charged, and fungal spores are released. All are potential triggers for migraines, although further research would have to be done to determine exactly what is causing the association found here. For now, people prone to migraines may consider taking preventive measures when the weather takes a stormy turn.

The full study, "Lightning and its association with the frequency of headache in migraineurs: An observational cohort study ," is published in the journal Cephalalgia .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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