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Photophobia: Migraine and increased sensitivity to light

Does exposure to bright flashing lights or changes in light levels make the pain of your migraine attacks worse? You are likely to be experiencing a very common migraine symptom known as photophobia. Photophobia may sound like a fear of light – this is, after all, what the word literally means! But the symptom (also known as photosensitivity) actually entails increased sensitivity to light. The result of this sensitivity? Intense light becomes uncomfortable to look at, and may even cause pain.

Girl with rabbit ears covering eyes from light
Shielding the eyes from bright light is one way to alleviate pain caused by photosensitivity

Photophobia is an incredibly common symptom of migraine. A 2016 survey found that a huge 89% of respondents became more sensitive to light during an attack. And this sensitivity is rarely short-lived. Studies have shown photophobia to be a lasting symptom of migraine attacks, often extending into the postdrome phase. This means that bright or flashing lights may continue to cause disruption whilst you are recovering.

Nor do sufferers of photophobia experience increased sensitivity to light only during attacks. Many report increased sensitivity to light in between the main phases of a migraine attack. 75% of participants in one study, for example, reported photosensitivity on a day to day basis.

What causes photophobia?

Photophobia is a symptom that arises from the connection between photoreceptor cells (the cells in the retina at the back of the eye that are responsible for detecting light) and the optic nerve (which runs from the eyes to the brain). Besides migraine, it is also associated with a number of conditions affecting the brain (such as meningitis) and conditions affecting the eyes (like conjunctivitis). Mental health conditions including anxiety and depression have also been linked to an increased sensitivity to light.

How can I treat photophobia during a migraine attack?

The most obvious action to take when it comes to light sensitivity is to try and avoid bright lights. This may involve keeping indoor lights dimmed and avoiding bright sunlight outdoors. Another solution is keeping your eyes closed as much as possible, or giving tinted glasses a go (rose-coloured lenses are a popular option). Alongside these options, the usual measures for alleviating migraine-associated pain (like medication) are likely to help.

Even better than treating photophobia, however, is preventing it. It is a good idea to have a strong grasp of what triggers your migraine. Use a migraine diary to track when and where you suffer attacks. This will help you to identify trends and make choices that reduce the risk of you experiencing an attack. Simple techniques like this can help you to live as pain-free as possible!

Sources

What Is Photophobia?

What causes Light Sensitivity?

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