Does light make your migraine headache pain worse? (Understanding Photophobia)

Photophobia (sensitivity to light) is a common symptom of migraine headaches.   Thanks to great work from Dr. Rami Burstein and his associates at Harvard Medical School, we now have a much better understanding on how light makes migraine headaches more painful.  Just as important, we can use this information to prevent migraines from becoming more severe.  I heard him speak on this subject at the summer American Headache Society meeting.

Dr. Burstein’s group published their research in Nature  Neurosciences.  Their research was very clever.  They used patients who were blind and also had migraines and determined which of them had photophobia and which ones did not.   Then they looked for differences between these patients.

Are you wondering how someone can be blind and  have migraines that get worse from light?  Let me give you a brief explanation.   There is a group of cells that respond to light called ‘intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells’.  These cells are not involved with the ability to see images.  Therefore, it is possible to be blind and still have these cells intact.  These cells are wired in such a way that they increase the pain during the migraine attack. Unfortunately, it only takes seconds of light exposure to make the pain worse and at times the effect of the exposure can last several minutes.

These cells respond most strongly to blue light.  On the color wheel, red is the farthest away from blue.  Therefore, I recommend migraine patients to literally see the world through rose colored sun glasses.  For those with frequent migraines, I recommend installing red lights in their homes.

About Dr. Loftus

Dr. Loftus is a Board Certified Neurologist in private practice in Bellaire, Texas, a small town located within the city of Houston. He has developed areas of special interest within neurology that include migraines, seizures, multiple sclerosis and the use of botulinum toxin (Botox®, Myobloc®).
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2 Responses to Does light make your migraine headache pain worse? (Understanding Photophobia)

  1. Isa says:

    I have read through the article especially the part that speaks in regards to the colored lights. I suffer from severe migraines and, in my case, I absolutely CANNOT stand looking at any warm hues when I have a migraine such as yellow, orange, and (especially) red. In fact, my room only has cool colors such as blues, greens, and greys (and some deep violets) because the warm colors make me naseaus and hurt my eyes everytime I get a migraine. Is there any reason or explanation as to WHY I am sensitive to warm hues contrary to the article’s belief?

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