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Light Sensitivity and Migraine

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Light Sensitivity and Migraine

Migraines affect about 1 in 7 people at one time or another. And if you've ever had one, you know that figuring out potential triggers and symptoms can be complicated.

But one fairly straightforward connection is sensitivity to bright light (or photophobia). Light sensitivity can often lead to, or accompany, migraine pain — not just in women (for whom migraine is most prevalent), but in men and even in children. 

Let’s look at some symptoms of photophobia and review options that may help you better manage your sensitivity to certain wavelengths of light.  

Symptoms of Photophobia

Research has shown that, in general, people who get migraines actually tend to have lower thresholds of light tolerance. Up to 80% of people with migraine experience light sensitivity during the course of their migraine episode. For 30-60%, certain kinds of light may even trigger their migraine. 

Uncomfortable symptoms of light sensitivity can include:

  • The need to look away from sources of light
  • A feeling that normal lighting is excessively bright or painful
  • Squinting or frequently blinking in sunny conditions (or when looking at a TV, computer or cellphone screen)

And photophobic people may find that they’re prone to other visual disturbances as well during a migraine episode, such as light flashes and blind spots during the aura stage. 

Green Light Therapy

In a recent study, Dr. Carolyn Bernstein at Harvard Medical School (a Mable Medical Board member) and her colleagues noted that exposure to green light appears to be least painful to people with migraine, while blue light is the most harmful. VeryWell Health concurs, noting that “green light does not activate retinal pathways as much as blue or other light rays, so it’s less likely to induce a migraine. Furthermore, you are less likely to experience aversion or sensitivity to green light during a migraine attack.”

At high light intensity — for instance, bright fluorescent office lights — nearly 80% of the Harvard study participants reported that their head pain grew worse with exposure to all colors but green. And interestingly, green light had the ability to reduce pain by about 20% in the people observed. 

In other research, green light exposure cut migraine days overall by an average of about 60% per month. Most subjects who participated — 86% of those with episodic migraine and 63% with chronic — reported a more than 50% reduction in migraine days. 

At high light intensity — for instance, bright fluorescent office lights — nearly 80% of Harvard study participants reported that their head pain grew worse with exposure to all colors but green.

Do Migraine Glasses Work?

Red- or Rose-Tinted Glasses

Migraine glasses are a type of eyewear designed to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines by blocking harmful wavelengths of light. It’s been shown that red- or rose-tinted migraine glasses effectively block blue light and other specific wavelengths that can cause light sensitivity and trigger migraine. 

Researchers discovered several years ago that rose-colored (FL 41 tint) lenses reduced migraine frequency in children by over one-half. In another study, use of deep-red-tinted lenses brought near-immediate pain relief to most participants, with others reporting relief within 90 minutes. 

By obstructing harmful wavelengths, these glasses may work well to help prevent or alleviate migraines in many individuals. 

Blue-Blocker Glasses

Blue light has a shorter wavelength and more energy than other types of visible light; it can reach more deeply into your eyes, potentially disrupting your circadian rhythm — essentially, your body clock. 

If you work on a computer or digital device for several hours each day and night, bright light emitted by those devices can disrupt your sleep patterns and/or cause uncomfortable symptoms of eye strain or dry eye, all of which can cause or aggravate migraines. Commonly available blue-blocker glasses (different from the FL 41 rose-tint glasses) may reduce the effect of blue light on melatonin levels and help people with migraine to sleep better, as well as ease stress on eyes. 

It’s not necessary to wear blue-light blocking glasses all the time, of course. But it may be helpful to put them on when you know you’ll be exposed to several hours of artificial blue light — for example, while watching an evening of TV or staring at your phone screen for a prolonged period. For some, blue-blocker glasses may help avoid or prevent some of the light sensitivity that can trigger a migraine or aggravate one that’s in progress. The degree of relief will vary from individual to individual. 

 Other Helpful Adjustments 

If you are bothered by light sensitivity related to migraine, you might also consider modifying the brightness level on your digital screens, using color-filtering mobile or computer apps, or adjusting the color and brightness of light bulbs where you live and work. Researchers also recommend regular use of sunglasses outdoors, for people who experience visual sensitivity, tension, or migraine headaches in bright sunlight. 

When photophobia accompanies migraines, a healthcare provider is your best resource to address its underlying causes and to help minimize it. 

Migraines have a genetic component — if a member of your immediate family experiences light sensitivity in conjunction with their migraine episodes, you’re more likely to be photophobic, too. By reviewing and evaluating your genetic profile, expert neurologists can tailor treatment specifically to your needs, with the goal of reducing your number and intensity of migraines.

Ready to explore how a DNA-informed migraine treatment program could work for you? Take the Mable quiz.

  1. NIH/National Library of Health. Shedding Light on Photophobia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485070/
  2. Frontiers in Neurology. Giving Researchers a Headache – Sex and Gender Differences in Migraine. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2020.549038/full
  3. WebMD. Giving the Green Light to Migraine Relief: https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/news/20160517/giving-the-green-light-to-migraine-relief
  4. American Optometric Association. Computer Vision Syndrome. https://www.aoa.org/healthy-eyes/eye-and-vision-conditions/computer-vision-syndrome?sso=y
  5. Michigan State University: Precision-tinted lenses offer real migraine relief, reveals new study. https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2011/precision-tinted-lenses-offer-real-migraine-relief-reveals-new-study
  6. Harvard Health. Shining a Light on Migraine Relief. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/shining-light-migraine-relief-2016083010148
  7. Brain: A Journal of Neurology. Migraine photophobia originating in cone-driven retinal pathways. https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/139/7/1971/2464334 
  8. Verywell Health. Light: A Therapy (and Trigger) for Migraines. https://www.verywellhealth.com/migraine-light-therapy-4114138
  9. Science Daily. Green light therapy shown to reduce migraine frequency, intensity. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200910090016.htm
  10. NIH/National Library of Health. The Use of Tinted Glasses in Childhood Migraine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1960058/
  11. Somnilight Light Therapy. How Do Photophobia and Migraine Glasses Work? https://www.somnilight.com/photophobia-glasses-and-migraine-glasses.html
  12. Wiley Online Library. Effects of a Blue-Blocking Screen Filter on Accommodative Accuracy and Visual Discomfort. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/opo.12738
  13. Greatist. What’s the Deal with Migraine Glasses? https://greatist.com/migraine/do-migraine-glasses-work
  14. Mable Website. https://www.trymable.com
  15. Mable DNA Quiz. https://www.trymable.com/quiz/dna

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Updated on
October 17, 2022
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