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How Light Can Trigger or Worsen Headaches

Headache & TMJ treatment in New Jersey

Migraines are the sixth most disabling illness in the world. For individuals who experience recurrent headaches or migraines, avoiding potential triggers is key to enjoying a day — or even just several hours — free from pain.

More than 39 million Americans suffer from intense, frequent headaches that can escalate to a migraine. For approximately 90 percent of those individuals, light is a contributing factor to headaches. Though there is no cure, Drs. Ivan and Allen Stein and the team at the Headache and TMJ Center of New Jersey can help you be aware of possible triggers and offer strategies to reduce the frequency and intensity of your headaches.

How Light Triggers Headaches

In 2010, researchers at Harvard Medical School conducted a study on 20 migraine sufferers who were also blind. The researchers found that although the primary light-detecting and image-producing cells in the eyes were damaged, the participants still experienced pain when exposed to light.

This led the researchers to investigate the impact of light on rats. They discovered a group of cells that sense light in the eye without image formation. These cells, discovered in the early 2000s, play a role in sleep-wake cycles and are known as intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs).

Researchers traced the path of ipRGCs and found that they converged on brain cells that transmit pain. Therefore, when exposed to light, both sets of cells were activated and remained “on” for several minutes, even after the light was removed. The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Rami Burstein, said, “This helps explain why patients say that their headache intensifies within seconds after exposure to light and improves 20 to 30 minutes after being in the dark.” 

Tips to Reduce Light-Sensitive Headaches

As Burstein’s research has continued, he spoke to the American Migraine Foundation in 2017, suggesting that people who suffer from frequent migraines may benefit from installing light bulbs that emit green light in their home or office. This band of light has been shown not to aggravate migraines.

Adjusting the wavelength, or tint, of the light around the patient is the most effective way to avoid light-triggered headaches. Blue light, which is emitted from TVs, smartphones, tablets and computer screens, is the most painful hue for migraine sufferers. This light should be filtered through yellow, red or orange lenses to reduce the impact.

Addressing light-sensitive headaches often requires professional support. Although sufferers can seek darker environments as a solution, this can be very limiting when it comes to the needs of daily life. Experts like Dr. Ivan Stein and Dr. Allen Stein of the Headache and TMJ Center of New Jersey can help you identify the underlying causes of your headaches and establish a treatment plan that will allow you to enjoy more pain-free moments. Call or send an email to schedule your appointment with our team and take the first step toward pain relief.