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.


Meet the Author
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.