When light sensitivity strikes, it can seem like the only solution is to retreat into the darkness. In our modern world, where we spend most of our days under fluorescent lights staring into bright screens, seeking an escape from unbearable light sources can mean putting life on hold.
For many migraine sufferers, this concept of retreat is all too familiar. In fact, more than 80% of all migraine patients report that light exacerbates their headache pain during an attack. This sort of light sensitivity, commonly referred to as photophobia, can make it nearly impossible to function. It prompts patients to seek the relief of a dark room and it can be so disabling that it puts a halt on everyday tasks.
Here, we’ll dig into the cause of photophobia during migraines, including new research that illuminates some of the long unsolved mysteries of migraine light sensitivity. We’ll also lay out a short list of solutions that can offer hope — from proactive light sensitivity treatment for preventing migraines to sources of much-needed relief that can help ease headaches when they happen.
What causes light-sensitive migraines?
The cause of migraine sensitivity to light was mostly a mystery until 2010, when Dr. Rami Burstein and his team published groundbreaking new evidence in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Through their study, these researchers identified a previously unknown pathway by which light intake increases migraine intensity, effectively pinpointing a key mechanism responsible for turning light into a worsening headache.
A year later, Dr. Burstein built on this research when he and others found that the same pathway reaches beyond the areas of the brain involved in the perception of pain and headache. These findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, clearly show that the new pathway interacts with areas of the brain tied to cognitive functions such as clarity of thinking, memory and attention, and how we perceive light, sound, and smell.
Do all types of light intensify migraines?
Early on in their research, Dr. Burstein and his collaborators focused on blind patients with migraine. In doing so, they found that these patients were divided into two groups. One group could not detect the presence of light at all. For these patients, light had no effect on migraine. But for blind patients who could still detect light, its presence could make migraines more painful — especially blue light.
Puzzled by these unique findings, the team set out over the next five years to better understand the effects of all colors of light on the migraine experience. By exposing patients with normal eyesight to wavelengths of white (regular room light), blue, green, amber, and red lights during a migraine, the team found that white, blue, amber, and red lights increased headache intensity in migraine patients who are not blind (the vast majority of the 36 million Americans who suffer migraine). However, perhaps most importantly, their results clearly showed that a narrow band of green light eases headache intensity.
Why do different light colors affect migraines in different ways?
Knowing that different colors have unique effects on migraine intensity is only half of the puzzle. The other half is understanding why they interact differently with the areas of the brain involved in migraine headaches. The answer is in the electrical signals the eye sends to the brain in response to each color of light via the pathway Burstein’s team discovered.
Simply put, most lights generate larger electrical signals in the eye. When these larger signals reach brain areas involved in migraine, such as the cortex, they generate more activity, intensifying the migraine. White, blue, amber, and red lights all generate these larger electrical signals. A narrow band of green light, however, creates the smallest electrical signal, which seems to calm the cortex, and thus reduce intensity and duration of an attack, as well as symptoms such as nausea and throbbing.
These findings were eventually published in Brain in 2016, garnering worldwide attention. At the heart of that excitement was the way in which Dr. Burstein translated the team’s findings into the potential for a non-pharmaceutical solution that was scientifically backed and effective. He posed the idea that inventing an affordable source of narrow-band green light could offer widely accessible relief for anyone suffering a migraine and light sensitivity. This gave rise to the promising concept of green light therapy and hope for those seeking natural ways to help migraines.
Light sensitivity affects more than headache intensity.
As it turned out, the positive effects of the narrow-band green light and negative effects of blue, red, white and amber lights were not unique to the headache intensity. They had similar effects on the many physiological and emotional symptoms that patients experience during their headaches: chest tightness, throat tightness, shortness of breath, fast breathing, elevated heart rate, lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, salivation, stuffy or running nose, drowsiness, irritability, anxiety. Interestingly, these unpleasant physiological perceptions, much like migraine intensity, are both caused by and soothed by different colors of light.
How do you stop migraines from being light sensitive?
In addition to the pain, the worst part of photophobia might just be how difficult it makes virtually any task. After all, whether it’s the screens we stare at all day (which emit blue light) or the bulbs we turn on at night, light is crucial for carrying out day-to-day activities. So how can migraine sufferers find the relief they need to keep functioning when dreaded light sensitivity starts to take its toll?
While there are many resources that lay out how to manage migraines, those that speak to light sensitivity are few and far between. Below, we share some solutions you can turn to for relief from light while experiencing a migraine, as well as light sensitivity treatment options that may prevent photophobia in the first place.
Look to Allay green light.
As you know by now, not all light contributes to photosensitivity. Narrow-band green light not only offers relief from migraines and other associated physical and emotional perceptions without pharmaceuticals, it also gives those with headaches a viable source of light so they can continue reading, working, and living instead of retreating into the shadows.
A light such as the Allay Lamp can enable you to harness the benefits of this specific band of green light, providing a portable and affordable ($199 with free shipping) solution that can light the way to much-needed relief.
Consider lenses that filter certain lights.
Green light can be great during a migraine attack, but sufferers may also want a source of “always-on” protection from the bands of light that trigger migraines and intensify them. In a 1991 study, researchers found that wearing FL-41 filtered lenses (which are tinted to a boysenberry-like hue) reduced the intensity and frequency of migraines in children. The Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah also reports that patients prefer wearing FL-41 filtered spectacles over conventional gray sunglasses or rose-colored spectacles.
Be honest with coworkers, roommates, and family.
Oftentimes, migraine sufferers will try to soldier through their light sensitivity, worried that dimming the lights or closing a curtain might make them a burden to those around them. However, an open and honest conversation about your migraines and how they impact your life can begin to help others understand why you need to take these actions. By giving those around you context, it can wipe away the unwanted feeling of “burdening” that might stop you from taking care of your own needs.
You don’t have to live in darkness.
Thanks to new research and treatments like green light therapy, it’s possible for patients to keep migraine sensitivity to light exactly where it belongs: out of sight. By understanding why light sensitivity happens, knowing which light to avoid, and having solutions like narrow-band green light in your migraine toolkit, you can better equip yourself to get the most out of your days and nights.