Health & Wellness

Lightning triggers migraines? How the weather can affect your health

Do you feel the achy joint pain of arthritis when the forecast calls for rain? Or perhaps you suffer from migraines and fear another headache will come on when lightning strikes.

Two experts weighed in on how the weather affects our health on TODAY Wednesday with Al Roker and Tamron Hall.

Courtenay Smith, the executive director of Reader’s Digest, and Dr. Steven Lamm, director of the men’s health center at NYU Langone Medical Center, discussed the effects that the cold can have on heart conditions, as well as how weather can affect people with arthritis, psoriasis and migraines.

“This is the new area of human bio-meteorology,” Lamm said.

For each of the four conditions, Smith said, there is a biological mechanism that is affected by the immediate weather.


In the United States, Smith says the rate of heart attack death increases 18 percent in the winter and decreases about 12 percent in the summer. A 2012 study from the American Heart Association found people are 26 to 36 percent more likely to die in winter from a heart attack, a stroke or heart failure. 

“There’s no question that cold can affect patients with heart disease,” Lamm said, adding that low temperatures may not be the only outdoor phenomenon at play.

“It may actually be the difference between the amount of day and night,” he said, “because in the Northeast and Southwest, even in the winter, there’s a higher incidence of heart disease.”


Dry weather can increase flare-ups of psoriasis, a skin disease that causes scales and itchy red patches, Smith said. And when people are stuck inside, a lack of exposure to sunlight can also bring on symptoms, Smith said, because the sun’s ultraviolet rays slow down skin cell turnover.

“The fact we’ll be getting out more and into the sun more, may actually help flare-ups in the warm weather,” Smith said.


While 60 percent of people with arthritis say they can tell when a rainstorm is approaching, Smith said studies have not shown a strong link between the two.

“But the anecdotal evidence is so strong and the biology is that as the atmospheric pressure drops, tissues around the joints can expand and press on nerves,” Smith said, urging people to talk to their doctor if they feel more symptoms during rain.

Lamm said the nerves “may be very sensitive to these slight changes in barometric pressure,” but he said it is the same change that would occur in an elevator traveling from the ground to the top floor.

Still, he said, if patients say they are in more pain, “You have to listen to them.”


Migraines are 28 percent more likely to occur during a lightning storm, Smith says.

“It may be electromagnetic changes or atmospheric pollutants, but migraines are very linked also to bright sunshine and changes in temperature,” she said, urging sufferers to keep a diary and record weather-related symptoms.

Lamm mentioned a report from Cincinnati that found an increased likelihood of migraines for people living within 25 miles of a lightning strike.

But he noted that there are “so many things trigger migraines.”

“This may be very interesting,” he said of the lightning link. “It hasn’t been confirmed but certainly, very interesting.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam