Can Light Sensitivity Cause Headaches?

If you struggle with chronic migraines, lighting can feel like your worst enemy when headache symptoms arise. Symptoms of photophobia, or light sensitivity, may limit you from carrying out routine activities such as driving, reading, writing, or leaving the house at all.

You might have noticed, however, that some types of lighting are easier to bear than others. When you understand how different hues of light affect your migraines, you can adjust your environment to avoid these triggers.

 

Understanding How Light Impacts Migraines

Like music, lighting can set the mood for just about any occasion. It can make you feel productive and energetic or calm and serene. Some lights can cause or exacerbate migraine headaches, research shows that other types of light can ease the painful symptoms.

 

Why Does Light Sensitivity Occur?

Fluorescent lighting in an office
Different kinds of lighting may affect your headaches.

Light sensitivity, also known as photophobia, can be responsible for the most debilitating forms of migraine or headache pain. Sensitivity to light is a common side effect of migraines, affecting more than 80 percent of sufferers according to our data. The lighting you live with every day can be a factor in your headaches. 

During a migraine attack, the majority of sufferers will experience some level of light sensitivity that can make the pain unbearable. This chronic sensitivity to light is what causes most migraine sufferers to seek out a dark room or dark glasses in order to gain a little relief. Some of the symptoms associated with light sensitivity include:

    • Development of a migraine after exposure to bright indoor lighting or intense sunlight
    • Experiencing a halo, aura, flashes or flickering lights at the onset of a migraine
    • Increased headache pain with exposure to bright lights, either across the head or just behind the eyes

Until recently, the reason why light affected migraine sufferers so badly was a mystery. In 2015, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that pain and visual pathways meet in the brain, causing pain to worsen when light levels increase.

According to Dr. Burstein, the lead researcher on the study conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, “We did not know where in the brain pain and light talked to each other and we discovered a new pathway that originates in the eye and leads to the brain. [Here], the active light and pain neurons are most active during a migraine attack. This explains why sufferers experience a throbbing headache and neck pain when exposed to increased levels of lighting.”

 

How Does The Color of Lighting Contribute to a Migraine?

Scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston also found that a narrow band of green light may actually alleviate migraine pain by 20 percent and significantly reduce headaches and sensitivity to light episodes.

In addition, lights with a blue hue tend to worsen migraines and other types of headaches. While warm colors like red and orange have a low wavelength on the visible light spectrum, cool colors like blue and purple have a shorter, more frequent wavelength which can be harsher on the eyes. Some researchers theorize that a specific neural pathway from the eyes to the brain negatively responds to the presence of these blue wavelengths, which causes headaches or makes existing symptoms worse.

The Boston study revealed that green light therapy for migraines may provide migraine relief. The research indicates that decoding green light requires less work from both your eyes and your brain. Green lighting created smaller electrical signals between the eye and the brain during this study and required less strain from the brain to decode once it reached its destination.

The findings in the study don’t exactly mean that you need to run out and buy green light bulbs for every room. If you struggle with migraines, however, experimenting with the colors and intensities of light in your home may reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.

 

What is the Best Lighting for Migraine Sufferers?

Lighting’s impact on our physical and emotional health is influenced by how “warm” or “cool” the bulb is, a factor measured in units called Kelvins. Kelvins measure the number of lumens emitted by a bulb. In most homes, you’ll find three types of lights:

    • Soft/warm white
    • Bright/cool white
    • Daylight

These three lights create dramatically different effects because of their ability to produce a higher or lower amount of lumen, which impacts both the amount and color of the light they give off in space.

Soft, warm white lights lie in the 2,700 Kelvin range and give off a smooth, yellow-hued light. Because these lights have fewer blue-spectrum elements than bright white and daylight, they are typically the best lighting for migraine sufferers.

Daylight bulbs measure between 5,000 and 6,500 Kelvins and contain by far the brightest and bluest light of the three options, making it likely to worsen migraine symptoms. Bright, cool white bulbs, which measure 4,100 Kelvin, provide a middle-of-the-road option.

 

Adjusting Lights in the Home to Avoid a Migraine

When designing a lighting scheme to accommodate your migraine symptoms, start with soft, warm white ambient light in the entire home. This hue is easiest on the eyes and least likely to trigger or worsen headaches.

Add brighter task lighting as needed in the kitchen, such as over the countertops and sink, so you can see well enough to chop veggies, wash dishes, and prepare meals. Choose long-lasting LED bulbs, available in a range of lumen levels for your various lighting needs. In general, warm is the best color temperature for the kitchen.

In the living room and bedroom, task lighting is probably too bright. Instead, strategically place accent lamps with brighter bulbs to create more light when needed. In the living room, accent lamps work well next to the chair where you read and relax. In the bedroom, try a table or floor lamp on each side of the bed.

Color is almost as important as light brightness and placement. Those who experience migraines should stick to lights with about a 2700 Kelvin rating. These bulbs will have a noticeable orange or yellow hue. Avoid bulbs near the 5000K range, which create blue light that can cause or worsen migraines according to the Beth Israel Deaconess study.

Additional Steps to Take in Avoid Light Related Migraines

When you still experience migraines even after trying the lighting suggestions above, you may want to consider seeking light therapy from a health care specialist. Light-filtering glasses that remove the offending tones and hues are currently under development.

Sunglasses are an effective solution if you want to lower the amount of light entering your cornea and along the pathway mentioned above. You may also want to ask your optical professional about the new FL-41 filter that can be applied to prescription glasses. A trip to the eye doctor can also identify any problems you may have with your eyes or eyesight that could be causing your photophobia and headaches.

In addition to buying new light bulbs to ease your migraine symptoms, consider pursuing treatment options to get rid of your migraines indefinitely.

Contact the National Headache Institute today to learn more about treatment options, or visit our website to find the location nearest you. Along with easing your migraine symptoms, we can help you find long-lasting relief.