According to research by Dr. Michael Cherington of the Lightning Data Center at St. Anthony Hospital in Denver and his colleagues, it?s possible to be struck by lightning while inside an airplane.

Their report describes the first known case of a flight attendant who suffered long-term effects after he was struck by lightning while seated in the rear section of the plane. There was no damage to the plane or to other passengers.

“Lightning strikes to commercial airplanes in flight are relatively common, yet passengers and crew are seldom injured,” says Cherington. “We believe the case reported here is the first in the medical literature where the occupant of an airplane has suffered long-term effects from a lightning-induced electrical event.”

The man felt a tingling throughout his body and then saw a bright flash shortly after take-off. He looked out the window and saw lightning strike the plane. One witness says a ball of light surrounded the man for a brief period, and sparks of light emanated from his body.

Co-workers noted that the man remained mildly confused as the flight continued. That night he experienced nausea, headache, ringing in his ears and numbness in his left arm. A neurologic exam the following day was normal but subsequent visits revealed that he had lost some feeling in his left arm and had tenderness in his spine. Ten weeks later the man continued to complain of headaches, insomnia and forgetfulness.

A scan of the patient’s brain 4 months later showed some small abnormalities that suggested nerve damage. Continued testing found moderate memory loss and deficits in attention and concentration. Nearly 2 years after the incident, the flight attendant remains forgetful and continues to be treated for persistent headaches. He is also undergoing cognitive rehabilitation therapy.

About 100 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries are caused by lightning strikes each year in the U.S. The man’s symptoms are typical of patients who are struck by lightning on the ground, Cherington’s team says. However, this is the first case in which a person was affected by lightning while inside an airplane.

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People who are struck by lightning could go on to develop rare disorders of the nervous system, according to the Denver researchers. Some lightning-strike victims show signs of involuntary movement disorders (IMDs), such as uncontrollable blinking, tic-like movements resembling Tourette’s syndrome, hand tremors and muscle spasms. These complications are normally found in people who have experienced other types of electric shocks, which damage the brain and the central nervous system.

Professor Andrew Lees from the National Hospital for Neurology in London, says, “Lightning can injure the nervous system in many different ways.? But he?s not sure that lightning is always the cause of neurological problems. “It could be the electric shock was the straw that broke the camel’s back in someone where IMDs were brewing.” He says, “If you looked at 1,000 people who had been struck by lightning you may find one case of movement disorders.”

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