Lightning and Migraine: More than just a Flash of Light

A fascinating new study about the connection between lightning and migraine attacks is opening up a conversation about much more than just flashes of light.

Although some still question the weather and migraine connection, there’s really very little doubt that changes in weather can impact migraine attacks.  The real question is, what kind of weather?  And just how much can a change of weather trigger migraine symptoms?

Lightning clouds

Because weather is complex (as we’ll see again in a moment), it’s notoriously difficult to study headache and weather and nail down exactly what in the climate is triggering the symptoms.

But before we go any further, let’s take a look at the new study.

Lightning and Migraine

Patients were chosen from Ohio and Missouri (USA).  They recorded their symptoms in a headache diary for 3-6 months.

Instead of just checking to see if there were storms in the area, or reported lightning, the team got a lot more specific.  They calculated whether lightning had struck within 25 miles of the migraineur’s home, actually using data from ground sensors.

And that meant that they could check for specific information about the lightning strikes.

Here are the results:

Lightning, Headache, and Migraine

Amazingly, people were 31% more likely to get a headache during the lightning storm, and 28% more likely to get a migraine attack.  Even more surprising, they were 23% more likely to get a “new onset” migraine attack!

Researchers then calculated out some of the other things that may trigger a migraine attack – such as changes in barometric pressure.  They still found that patients were 13% more likely to have a migraine attack when lightning struck.

The results were clear:  Lightning triggers migraine attacks.

Why lightning?

But the question remains – why?

Lightning isn’t just a random flash of light.  And that’s why this opens up such an interesting and far-reaching area of research.

For example, one theory is that changes in ions in the atmosphere may trigger an attack.  In lightning, electrical charges are carried by ions.  

Or, it could be a change in the ozone.  Yes, lightning creates ozone in the air, and you can sometimes smell it before a thunderstorm.  There are also nitrogen oxides (NO), precursors to ozone (incidentally, we already know that NO and migraine are connected – read Deeper into Migraine, Glucose and Insulin…).

How about electromagnetic pulses?  There has been research into how these pulses or sferics could impact migraine patients.  Some patients (though a minority) seem to be impacted by these radio waves.

But there’s more.  There’s something key that increases the likelihood of lightning – dust.

Dust, asthma, and migraine…

Dust isn’t just powder, of course.  It’s a complex ecosystem all its own.  Dust travels the globe, and may contain spores, ions, bacteria and viruses.

Feeling sick before the lightning hits?  Or is your asthma acting up?  Could it be that you’re inhaling particles that are triggering an attack?  Particles that may be partially “cleaned up” after the lightning storm?

Incidentally, lightning isn’t the only thing that comes along with dust.  Dusty air often comes along with low barometric pressure, warm air, wind, and rain.  Interesting that a 1981 study found that “phase 4” weather was more likely to trigger migraine attacks – low pressure, warm fronts and humidity.  Connection?


This study was limited, partly because it couldn’t take into consideration seasonal changes (diaries were kept for half a year or less).  But also because there are so many related factors that go into weather patterns.

But we do know this:

  • It has been confirmed again that weather can trigger migraine
  • Lightning seems to be one of the factors that triggers migraine and headache
  • There are a series of complex interactions that may be involved, including airborne dust particles, microorganisms, changes in air composition, and more

Hopefully this study will help us understand more about the relation of migraine to asthma, and the impact of changes in the atmosphere on migraine and other conditions.

For more information:  All the World’s a Stage … for Dust (NASA); Headache – Atmospheric Radiation Link Explored (Cephalalgia); Lightning and its association with the frequency of headache in migraineurs: An observational cohort study (Cephalalgia); Research Ties Lightning to Onset of Headache, Migraines (University of Cincinnati); En’lightning’ the impact of atmospheric conditions in headache (Cephalalgia)

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3 comments… add one
  • Aurora Feb 1, 2013

    We had some guests one July evening but as soon as I was to serve coffee, I felt like I wanted a lie down. I took off and the five-minute break I was thinking turned into absence for the rest of the evening. I didn’t know what happened. I just felt paralysed. The following morning I was feeling fine and saw on the news that 3,000 lightning hit the surrounding area where I live.

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