Migraine pain is some of the most debilitating pain that a person can feel, but one of the worst parts about the pain is that migraine symptoms don’t end there. Approximately 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from migraines, working to treat them with a mix of prevention and treatment of migraine symptoms. New research has revealed a startling treatment option: light, a common trigger of migraines, may actually help relieve migraine symptoms.
Giving relief of migraine symptoms the green light
Migraines generally occur in four distinct stages:
- Prodromal: This is the time before a migraine hits. Symptoms in this stage can include strange food cravings, fatigue, and irritability.
- Aura: A small percentage of migraine sufferers will experience visual migraine symptoms, including wavy lines, blurring, and distorted light. The majority of migraine sufferers – between 80 and 85% – also begin to feel very sensitive to light in this stage.
- Attack: Pain is the most overwhelming of the migraine symptoms at this stage.
- Postdromal: This stage is characterized by migraine symptoms that include fatigue, thirst, hunger, and a slightly foggy feeling.
In each of these stages, and even before migraines begin, those who suffer may be extremely sensitive to light. It may seem counterintuitive to then look at the use of light to treat migraines, but that’s exactly what researchers at Harvard Medical School did. Researchers found that a specific band of green light was less likely to intensify painful migraine symptoms and could even, at low levels, help lessen the pain.
Research on green light for migraines
Rami Burstein, professor of anesthesia at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study pointed out that although pain was the most well-known of migraine symptoms, it is not necessarily pain that is incapacitating, noting:
“[It] is [a patient’s] inability to endure light that most often disables them.”
This understanding led researchers to gather migraine sufferers and ask them to evaluate the effects of different lights on pain levels. The team knew that blue light most often increased pain, but they wondered if other colors might be palliative or at least not increase pain. In well-lit settings like professional buildings, 80% of sufferers reported an increase of pain in all colors, except green. For that color, patients reported a 20% decrease in pain level.
Light increases migraine symptoms because of the way in which migraines affect the optic nerve. This research was conducted on patients who were totally blind as well as patients who could detect light. Totally blind patients who suffered from migraine symptoms did not report worsening symptoms in the presence of light. Those patients who were legally blind but could detect light were affected by light to the same degree as normally sighted people.
Retinal cells that involve sleep cycles were the culprit, becoming active when light triggered electrical signals that stimulated these cells. The resulting activity lasted for approximately 20 to 30 minutes after the stimulation, which explains why darkness helps “deactivate” these electrical signals, reducing migraine symptoms.
This earlier research about how light affects migraine symptoms was also conducted by Rami Burstein, and it led the way to looking deeper at the way that certain types of light might be beneficial (or at least not harmful). In each study, Burstein noted the possibility of helping migraine patients by better understanding the effects of light, saying:
“Clinically, this research sets the stage for identifying ways to block the pathway so that migraine patients can endure light without pain… My hope is that patients will be able to benefit directly from these findings one day very soon.”
The effects of light on migraine symptoms can be profound. Light is often listed as a main trigger for certain types of migraine, including those that are accompanied by aura. Other migraine symptoms that may be triggered by light include:
Treatments for light sensitivity
Treatment for this photophobia (literally “fear of light,” but used as a term for light sensitivity in migraine sufferers) can be very simple.
Sit in a darkened room
Retreating to a dark space is many times one of the first things a migraine sufferer will do when the prodromal stage of migraine hits. Sitting in a darkened room may be enough to head off other migraine symptoms.
Use an eye pillow
If it’s not possible to head to a darker place, an eye pillow can help block light.
In the postdromal stage, photophobia can be enough to trigger another attack. Wearing sunglasses, even indoors, helps combat this and allows migraine sufferers to slowly return to their regular lives.
Screens – phone, TV, and computer – utilize blue light, a prime suspect in triggering migraine symptoms. Before, during, and after a migraine, returning too soon to work and screens can cause another attack. When possible, limit exposure, and, if necessary, wear sunglasses and reduce the screen’s brightness when possible.
Stay away from fluorescent lighting
Fluorescent lighting can create glare off of screens and other surfaces. It may also flicker, stimulating your optic nerve. If you can work with task lighting instead of utilizing office overheads, make that switch.
If you must go back to work and are still feeling sensitive to light, you can take a couple steps to protect yourself.
- Move your desk so that you are not facing any direct light (natural or otherwise)
- Position your computer or laptop screen to minimize glare
- Use a hood on the top and sides of your screen to minimize the light that hits the screen
- Lower the lights in your work area, if possible
Migraine symptoms can be triggered by light, but this latest research indicates that green light might be helpful to lessen the pain. If you suffer from migraines, do you find yourself sensitive to light? How do you cope?