How is Light Sensitivity Associated with Migraine? And What's #shadesformigraine?

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March 14, 2022
June 21, 2021
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How is Light Sensitivity Associated with Migraine? And What's #shadesformigraine?

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is a hypersensitivity to light. In Greek, photo means light and phobia means fear. Photophobia is an aversion to light, meaning lights might feel too bright. Light (especially bright fluorescent light and the blue light of computers, tablets, or smartphones) can lead to discomfort and pain or worsen the pain of migraine attacks.

Dr. Rami Burstein, a professor of anesthesia and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues have studied the impact of different wavelengths of light. They found that blue light is the most likely to worsen headache during at migraine attack and green light is the least likely to do so.

Light sensitivity is common with migraine. About 85 to 90% of people with migraine also have light sensitivity. Although being in the dark during a migraine attack can help, people with migraine disease can have light sensitivity outside of migraine attacks.  

There are no medications specifically targeting light sensitivity. Migraine treatments can help light sensitivity only if it's related to migraine.

People with light sensitivity from migraine might also benefit from glasses with FL-41 tint or blue-blocking filters or from applying blue-light filter screens to their devices. When regularly worn, FL-41 glasses have been shown to significantly decrease the frequency of migraine attacks. It is important to discuss the FL-41 or other filters with the oculist at an optical shop to ensure the right wavelength of light is blocked. It is helpful to receive advice on the lens too, in order to provide as much isolation as possible, since light can reflect from the sides or top of the glasses.

When indoors, it is preferred to use natural light only by sitting close to a window (without facing it). Another option would be to use lamps or light bulbs with only pure green wavelength of light. If natural or green light are not possible, dimming the lights is another option. The brighter the light, the worse the discomfort.

Despite the discomfort and/or pain caused by light exposure, it is important to maintain light exposure and not constantly wear sunglasses nor stay in the dark. Avoiding light altogether increases sensitivity to light and will worsen the issue long term. If you got accustomed to being in the dark most of the time, try to slowly increase your exposure to light. It is much easier to go from a dimly light room to sunny outdoors than to go from a dark room to the bright sun. 

Although migraine is the most common cause of light sensitivity, it is important to discuss it with your doctor. Light sensitivity in only one eye would be very unusual for migraine. There might be many other possible causes of light sensitivity such as fatigue, dry eyes, an eye condition such as cataracts or others, a growth of the pituitary gland, frequent eye blinking, traumatic brain injury, medication side effects, etc. Your doctor might want to examine you to look for signs that would suggest other causes.

In summary, migraine often comes with light sensitivity either as part of migraine attacks, around migraine attacks, or increased sensitivity to light in general. Migraine medications, blue light filters, natural light, dim light can help with light sensitivity. Discuss light sensitivity with your doctor to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment of light sensitivity. 

On June 21st, the longest day of the year, people post pictures on social media of themselves wearing sunglasses with the hashtag #ShadesForMigraine to raise awareness for migraine disease. Wearing sunglasses represents light sensitivity. Join the campaign on Instagram!

Dr. Olivia Begasse de Dhaem in sunglasses to support #shadesformigraine

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Olivia Begasse De Dhaem, MD
Dr. Olivia Begasse de Dhaem is a board-certified and fellowship-trained neurologist and headache specialist, and an Advisor to Neura Health.
About the Author
Dr. Olivia Begasse de Dhaem is a board-certified neurologist and Headache Specialist at Hartford HealthCare in Milford CT. She graduated from Columbia University College of Physicians medical school. She attended her neurology residency at the Columbia University Neurological Institute. She completed her headache medicine fellowship at Harvard University. She is an emerging leader of the American Headache Society. She is involved in advocacy and feels strongly about supporting people with headache disorders in the workplace.

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