Migraine and light sensitivity, or photophobia, commonly occur together. Doctors often describe photophobia as a symptom of migraine headaches. However, they do not always occur together.
A person may have migraine headaches without photophobia, and people without migraine headaches can have photophobia.
This article explores the connection between migraine and photophobia, how to treat the conditions, and more.
Between 85% to 90% of people living with migraine report that they sometimes experience a sensitivity to light.
However, photophobia is not limited to people living with migraine. Though migraine is the most common condition associated with photophobia, other health issues may also occur alongside light sensitivity. They can include:
- dry eyes
- irritation to eyes
- cluster headaches
- blepharospasm, which is a condition that causes abnormal and involuntary blinking, or spasming, of the eyelids
- traumatic brain injuries
- central nervous system disorders
- tension headaches
Increased photophobia can also occur due to temporary conditions, such as meningitis, conjunctivitis, and corneal abrasion, or due to long-term or recurrent conditions,
People with photophobia are particularly sensitive to bright lights, changes in lighting conditions, or flickering lights. They also may note that their migraine headache symptoms become worse based on lighting conditions.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, photophobia is considered one of the most common symptoms of a migraine headache. Doctors can use photosensitivity as part of the diagnosis of a migraine headache, even without the presence of pain.
People with photosensitivity often report issues with sensitivity to artificial and natural lights before, during, or after a headache.
For some, light can act as a trigger. It can also make their migraine headache worse. As a result, people with both migraine headaches and photophobia may find relief in a dimly lit room during a migraine attack.
For those with migraine headaches, photophobia can occur before the pain appears or after the pain resolves. It can also occur between migraine attacks. The National Headache Foundation notes that people with migraine are typically more sensitive to light than others between migraine attacks.
Photophobia can occur due to visual stimuli such as:
- flickering lights
- repetitive patterns
- bright lights
- computer screens
Photophobia can also occur due to fluorescent lighting, as it contains invisible pulsing.
How long photophobia lasts can vary between people.
For some, treating their migraine headache will prevent symptoms of light sensitivity from occurring. They then may not experience symptoms until their next migraine headache.
Others may experience photophobia prior to, during, and after a migraine headache. In these cases, taking preventative measures, such as wearing sunglasses when outside, may help prevent symptoms from occurring.
Photophobia related to migraine can get better by treating the migraine headaches. However, some people may still notice light sensitivity between headaches.
Migraine treatment plans vary from person to person. There are several medications a doctor may try to help prevent headaches from occurring.
A 2019 article in the journal American Family Physician indicates that while some medications can be effective in preventing migraine attacks, behavioral changes also can be beneficial. A person can:
- manage their environment
- avoid behavioral triggers, such as activities that can cause a migraine headache
- make changes in their diet to avoid foods that may trigger a migraine
When a migraine headache occurs, there are several medications a person may find helpful. Some common medications for the treatment of migraine headaches include:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
- ergot alkaloids
- combination analgesics
A person having a migraine attack may also find relief in a darkened room with minimal noise.
For photophobia that does not go away with treatment of migraine, the American Migraine Foundation states that tinted lenses may help. A doctor may prescribe lenses with a FL-41 tint, blue light-blocking, or red lenses to help improve symptoms.
In some cases, a person may be able to take steps to avoid photophobia from occurring. The American Migraine Foundation states that a person can take steps such as:
- dimming the lights
- wearing glasses with lenses that can block blue and other rays of light
- wearing sunglasses when outside
However, the American Academy of Ophthalmology states that being in a dark environment for long periods of time can increase a person’s sensitivity to light. They recommend instead slowly adapting to brighter or different light sources.
Although it may be beneficial to adapt to brighter or different lights, a person should not do it to the extent that it causes discomfort.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, signs that a headache may be a migraine can include:
- head pain that is moderate to severe and may be difficult to endure
- head pain that creates a pounding, pulsating, or throbbing sensation
- head pain that lasts from 4 hours to several days at a time
- head pain that causes person to miss work, school, or social events
- head pain that worsens with physical activity or movement
- nausea or vomiting alongside the pain
- sensitivity to noise or smells
- muscle aches and pains
- mood changes
The pain may appear on one side or the other, in the front or back, or around the eyes.
Triggers are anything that can set off a migraine headache. They can vary from individual to individual, and can include environmental and behavioral factors.
Some common triggers include:
- foods such as chocolate, cheese, and other items with a strong odor
- hormonal changes
- changes in the weather
- irregular sleep or changes in sleep cycle
- smells such as perfume or chemicals
- overuse of medication
A person should speak with a doctor if they experience unexplained sensitivity to light and if light sensitivity is affecting their daily routine.
People living with migraine headaches also should speak with a doctor about any new symptoms, or if they experience more frequent or worsening headaches. It is possible they may need additional therapy or to change their current treatment plan.
Migraine and photophobia are connected. Photophobia is a common symptom of migraine headaches. Additionally, light can trigger a migraine headache.
Photophobia episodes may resolve with effective migraine treatment and prevention, but some people may notice symptoms between migraine attacks.
People can help manage their migraine headaches with lifestyle changes and using certain medications.
A person can try special lenses, sunglasses, and make changes to their environment at home, work, or school to help prevent photosensitivity.