Migraine and light
By: Rachel Baxter, Communications Officer, The Migraine Trust
In this blog, we answer commonly searched questions about migraine and light.
Can migraine cause light flashes?
The short answer is: yes. If you see flashing lights, sparkles or any other unusual changes to your vision, this could be migraine aura. Migraine aura occurs in about a third of people with migraine and involves sensory changes like visual disturbances, feeling dizzy and feeling numb. It tends to last no more than an hour and happens before your main migraine attack symptoms like head pain and feeling sick set in. If you are experiencing aura symptoms or other migraine symptoms, you should speak to your doctor who can diagnose you and rule out other conditions.
While a migraine attack can cause sight changes like seeing flashing lights, bright light in our environment can also make a migraine attack worse.
What kind of light affects migraine?
People with migraine can be affected by both natural and artificial light, as well as flickering or pulsing lights, screens and glare. These lights might appear to trigger a migraine attack or make an existing attack worse. Many people believe that light triggers their attacks, but it may actually be the case that they are noticing light sensitivity in the very early stages of their attack before they have started feeling unwell.
You may notice your migraine worsening with light changes at certain times of year, for example during bright, hot summer days or when surrounded by artificial lights at Christmas.
Do all migraine attacks cause light sensitivity?
While not everyone experiences light sensitivity, or photophobia, with a migraine attack, it is a very common symptom. Around 80 percent of people with migraine are sensitive to light during an attack. Light sensitivity is also not exclusive to one type of migraine, it can occur in different types of migraine such as migraine with aura, vestibular migraine, hemiplegic migraine and even abdominal migraine.
Migraine is not the only condition associated with light sensitivity. If you notice you feel sensitive to light, you should speak to your doctor about it and any other symptoms you are experiencing so that they can make a diagnosis. Other conditions that can cause light sensitivity include:
- Dry or irritated eyes
- Cluster headache
- Tension headache
- Head injury
- Conditions that affect the central nervous system
Can special glasses help me?
There are various types of glasses advertised to help with migraine and protect your eyes from certain types of light. At the moment, there is not enough high quality scientific evidence for us to know whether these glasses help people with migraine or not, so we cannot recommend them. There is no harm in trying them if you want to, and some people say they help, but they may not make any difference.
How can I reduce the effects of light on my migraine?
- Rest in a cool, dark room: If you are having a migraine attack or feel you are on the verge of one, lying down in a dark or dimly lit room can help.
- Protect your eyes from the sun: Wear good quality sunglasses and/or a sunhat when it is sunny and bright outside. This can also help if you are in the middle of a migraine attack.
- Take regular screen breaks: If you spend a lot of time in front of screens, be sure to take regular breaks. Take a few minutes every hour or so to look away from your screen and rest your eyes. Having an anti-glare screen or anti-glare screen cover can also help, as can positioning your screen so that it is not facing a window.
- Take breaks from artificial lighting: Some people find that bright artificial lights, like those in shops, offices or airports can affect their migraine. Try to take breaks away from them if you can, or stay by a window to access some natural light. Wearing sunglasses may help to shield your eyes. If you struggle with the artificial lighting at work, speak to your manager about potential adjustments. See our Help at work toolkit for more.
- Avoid flickering/flashing lights: Some people find flashing or flickering light makes their migraine worse. Avoid looking directly at this kind of light. If you have a flickering lightbulb at work or at home, be sure to change it as soon as possible.
- Use soft, warm lighting: If you find artificial lighting to be unpleasantly bright and it affects your migraine, using soft, warm lightbulbs in your home may help. These tend to emit a gentler light than other lightbulbs. They usually range from 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin.