Newsflash: Lightning May Cause Headaches

A thunderous pounding, flashes of light—the symptoms are familiar to anyone who’s suffered a headache or migraine.

But according to new research, headaches may have more to do with electrical storms than anyone imagined. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found that lightning may in fact contribute to the onset of headaches and migraines. (Explore an interactive of the human body.)

Lightning has been linked to headaches. Photograph by Shireen Nadir, My Shot


The study found a shocking 31 percent increase of the risk of headache and a 28 percent increased risk of migraine for chronic headache sufferers on days that lightning struck within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of their homes. (See lightning pictures.)

Furthermore, new-onset headaches and migraines increased by 24 percent and 23 percent, respectively, according to the study, published January 24 in the headache-focused journal Cephalalgia.

While there have been conflicting studies linking factors such as weather, humidity, and barometric pressure and headaches, the new study is the first to show a correlation between lightning and associated weather phenomena and the squalls in our heads.

How Does Lightning Spark Headaches?

Participants in the study logged their daily headache activity for three to six months, during which any nearby lightning strikes were also recorded. Mathematical models were then applied to rule out other weather factors as the cause of the headaches—and the correlation held true. (Interactive: Make lightning strike.)

The results “suggest that lightning has its own unique effect on headache,” study leader Vincent Martin, a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati, said in a statement.

As for how exactly lightning might trigger headaches, Martin said there are a number of possible explanations.

“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.”

Study co-author Geoffrey Martin—a medical student at the university and Vincent’s son—emphasized in a statement that while the study sheds light on the apparent link between lightning and headaches, “the exact mechanisms through which lightning and/or its associated meteorologic factors trigger headache are unknown.”

Meaning a further brainstorm may be required.

Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.
  • Ember

    Interesting. I haven’t been in many lightning storms, and the many headaches I’ve had are only caused my little sister. Could SHE be electromagnetic?

  • Grant

    ‘Correlation does not imply causation’ keeps ringing in my head but it seems the researchers have suggested several mechanisms by which lightning might be causing head aches and migraines. It will be interesting to see if anything is found through further research that suggests a causative link.

  • peter collins

    A question., Why do i get a hightened sense of smell aprox.20 minutes prior to onset of migraine.

  • Karoliina

    Where I come from it´s common knowlege one might get a headache before thunder strikes and also I have experienced and witnessed the phenomenom a several times. However, when the thunder actually hits, along with lightnings, the headache also seems to vanish. I think many would agree the phenomenom war rather due to air pressure changes than lightnings, but what do I know?

  • Victor

    “Electromagnetic waves emitted from lightning could trigger headaches”.
    To me, this sentence does not convey much meaning. Light consist of electromagnetic waves (EMWs) of particular energy. Even our bodies emit low-frequency EMWs! So does the researcher mean high-energy EMW? This would not be any news: we already know how harmful X-rays and Gamma-rays are. On the other hand, is lightning energetic enough?

  • Sheri

    Could these headaches be associated with a change in the charge of ions?

  • Jean-Pierre

    We just had a huge electric storm the last couple of days and I suffered from severe headaches out of nowhere!

  • Vereda

    Follow today a shipment of Paracetamol to the Vatican…

  • Maria Evripidou

    I have a headache now but it’s because I looked straight into a lightning!

  • Scott Panish

    Thats crazy i just got a bad headache while taking a video of a thunderstorm…

  • Kim P.

    I get chronic migraines and I’ve known this for a very long time now. Sometimes people don’t understand because it might be sunny where we are, but I have a migraine because of stormy weather somewhere else. This study and studies like these increase the knowledge of society regarding migraines to let everyone know they aren’t “just headaches”. Thank you

  • Pieter

    I never have migranes, except when a heavy thunderstorm approaches. Like @Karoliina mentions, it suddenly and completely disappears when the storm breaks loose and it starts raining. I think that EM waves and pressure changes are very unlikely causes, they are just other side effects of the storm, but in orther sitations where these occur, I do not have any symptoms. I heard that thunderstorms can cause an excess of positive ions in the atmosphere, is there any reasearch on that? Some people believe that a needle charged at a negative high voltage, spraying negative ions into the room, can bring relief. Does any of the readers have experience with this?

  • Lesley

    I get migraines inevitably before a thunderstorm shows up but it always does, even if hours later and I agree with Pieter from Zambia regarding negative and positive ions. If a migraine comes on I stay in a very hot shower against the back of my neck and head (hotter than I can usually stand). 9 times out of ten it gives me relief and the migraine goes from 10 – 1 within 1/2 hour.
    I’ve given up on the medications I was supplied as this works so much better.

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