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Lightning increases migraine likelihood, new study claims

A bolt of lightning strikes a field; 25 miles away, somebody gets a migraine. You wouldn’t think the two events could be connected – but a new study, published in the US journal Cephalalgia, is claiming that there is a link between lightning and the appalling headaches that affect eight million people in the UK.

world Updated: Feb 19, 2013 02:00 IST

A bolt of lightning strikes a field; 25 miles away, somebody gets a migraine. You wouldn’t think the two events could be connected – but a new study, published in the US journal Cephalalgia, is claiming that there is a link between lightning and the appalling headaches that affect eight million people in the UK.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, compared data collected from lightning sensors in two US states, Ohio and Missouri, with headache logs kept by 90 migraineurs, those diagnosed with migraine. Their conclusion was startling: the migraineurs were 28% more likely to experience an attack on days when lighting struck within 25 miles of their home.

Assessing the causes of a migraine is always problematic. As a migraineur since my late teens, I’m painfully aware that although many neurologists have useful theories, nobody has conclusively established what a migraine is. What we do know is that migraine is probably related to changes in the levels of serotonin in the bloodstream – and that it’s far from a common headache. Migraine is an explosion of pain, usually felt on one side of the face, and often accompanied by sensitivity to light and noise, nausea and visual disturbances, or “aura”. Without medication the pain is unbearable: during some of my worst attacks, I’ve been known to bang my head on the wall.

There is no cure, but we migraineurs are encouraged, like those in the Cincinnati study, to keep diaries, noting when we get an attack, and any recognised trigger factors that might have contributed to it. These triggers, which have been usefully collated by the charity Migraine Action, are innumerable: watching TV, emotional stress, changes in sleep patterns, dehydration, travelling, certain foods, such as cheese, chocolate and red wine – the list goes on. Usually, over time, you’ll find that your own personal pattern emerges: combine two or more of these triggers, and you’re in the danger zone for an attack.

So where does lightning fit into this? Certain weather conditions are among the trigger factors – from bright sunlight to cold winter winds and thunderstorms. The Cincinnati study is the first, however, to suggest that lightning could be a trigger in itself. Any such study has limitations – there could have been any number of other factors jointly causing the migraineurs’ attacks – but its conclusions are worth examining nonetheless.

For Joanna Hamilton-Colclough, director of Migraine Action, the study highlights the importance for migraineurs of considering any links between weather and their attacks. “This is the first time I’ve heard about lightning being linked to migraine,” she says, “but a lot of people do report weather changes, like thunderstorms, as a trigger. You can’t control the weather. But you can look at reducing those other factors you can control such as stress.