It’s that moment when you’re driving and the oncoming driver hits the brights. Or when you’re in the grocery store and the beaming fluorescent lights force you to wince in the cereal aisle. Many migraineurs know all too well how lighting can trigger an attack.
In fact, light sensitivity (also known as “photophobia”) is probably the most common sensitivity that migraineurs face, affecting anywhere from 66 to 88 percent of migraineurs. “It’s even more common than nausea and sensitivity to sound,” says Vincent Martin, MD, vice president of the National Headache Foundation and professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati.
Though it may not be possible to control all lighting in your environment, you can make your surroundings more bearable by better understanding how light can impact migraine.
The Migraine Brain and Light Sensitivity
Migraineurs are generally more sensitive to triggers (such as light) than the average person, says Robert Kaniecki, MD, director of The Headache Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“The migraine brain is fundamentally sensitive to multiple different sensory stimuli,” Dr. Kaniecki says. Although light may top the list, you might also struggle with sensitivity to certain smells or sounds, and these can trigger a migraine.
Although researchers have not yet concluded exactly how light triggers migraine, Dr. Kaniecki attributes some of the connection to pain and light signals that converge upon the brain, which then processes the signals together.
For many migraineurs, light doesn’t just trigger migraine pain—it may also make an existing migraine worse. “Your hypersensitive brain becomes even more sensitive during a headache or migraine,” Dr. Kaniecki says, “and the baseline sensitivities will become amplified during the course of the attack.”
Tips to Avoid Light Triggers
Following are four types of migraine-inducing light that you can avoid or deflect.
The sun is the most commonly reported light trigger, according to research published in the June 2009 issue of the journal Headache. Sunglasses can help to block out some of this light—if you know it’s coming.
Dr. Kaniecki says his patients sometimes complain about the unexpected and sudden contrast from darkness to sunlight that occurs when stepping out of a movie theater. To avoid this unpleasant surprise, he suggests switching the lenses in your everyday eyeglasses to photochromic lenses that automatically darken when exposed to ultraviolet light.
2. Fluorescent lights
Although fluorescent lights are considered more energy efficient than the incandescent kind, Dr. Kaniecki says the whitish-blue color of fluorescent light is problematic for migraineurs.
The easiest solution for this lighting problem is to switch to incandescent bulbs or at least to switch to less-intense 60 to 70 watt bulbs. A simple dimmer switch, available at home improvement stores, can also help you control indoor lighting. Dr. Kaniecki says that those who work in an office environment should “try to use as much natural lighting as you can.”
3. Filtered lights
Dr. Kaniecki has found that certain types of blinds filter light differently and that the horizontal light patterns negatively affect his patients.
The solutions here seem obvious: close the blinds, or swap blinds for shades or dark curtains. The important thing is to be aware that these window treatments that you might overlook could be the very objects triggering your pain.
4. Flickering lights
The visual cortex, or part of the brain that reads visual information, doesn’t like flashing or flickering lights. Computers, particularly older computers, tend to have a subtle flicker effect that can irritate the eyes and trigger headaches, Dr. Kaniecki says.
To solve this issue (particularly if you sit at a computer all day at work), try a plastic guard. Or consider swapping that old computer screen for an anti-glare screen or an LED monitor. LED uses the same flat-panel technology that LCD uses—just without the use of fluorescent lights.
Whether you’re the kind of migraineur who must wear sunglasses 24/7 or simply need to close the curtains on the brightest days, be proactive in identifying how light affects you. Adjusting your environment to your needs can help to eliminate the harshest triggers and remove the fear of the fluorescent bulb.
How Photophobia Affects Color Perception
Photophobia, or sensitivity to light, may cause some migraineurs to lose their perception of color. Patients experiencing migraine have a generalized impairment in the perception of the color red, according to research published in the June 2007 issue of the journal Headache. Perception of red was particularly worse for migraineurs who experienced sensitivity to light, so researchers noted that “it is conceivable that photophobia was responsible for the difficulties that migraine patients had in seeing red.”