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Ceiling fans can seem like strobe lights to my migraine brain

A few months ago, Jim and I decided to try out that lovely little Italian restaurant down the street.

You know, the one that was an Italian restaurant, and before that was an Italian restaurant, and before that was the Italian restaurant with a different name? Well, this one seems to be holding its own and may just be the restaurant that will last in this location.

But that’s neither here nor there. The point is we went to this restaurant for a nice date.

The hostess sat us at a table toward the back. We had a great view of the authentic brick pizza oven and, though the restaurant was crowded, it was cozy enough to be a great date spot.

Except for that strobe light. What the heck was happening? The bright white tablecloth was flashing, and the same strobe was reflected in the glassware and plates. I looked around. Were there cops or construction workers out on the street passing by? Was there some disco dance party beginning?

No. It was the bright overhead light as seen through a rapidly oscillating fan.

Those of us migraineurs who are sensitive to light, particularly fluorescents, know that the buck doesn’t stop at any particular kind of light. Even the most gorgeous fall afternoon can be migraine-triggering when you’re driving down a lovely road in your car: the sunlight flickers rapidly through the trees, hitting your periphery just so and aggravating your sensitized brain.

In the Italian restaurant’s case, a lovely environment was made suddenly intolerable to me because of someone’s decision to put track lighting above the fan.

We asked to move to the front of the restaurant, to the slight confusion of the waitress. You can probably guess by now that I take most opportunities like this to explain to people why I’m making an odd request, especially after having told the hostess that the table was “perfect.” I told the waitress about how flashing and bright lights can trigger migraines for me, and she seemed genuinely interested and actually said she’d keep that in mind. No judgment, no eye-rolling.

Our new seat had a view of the street, so we watched passers-by as we dined. I looked over at our old table and now couldn’t ignore the way the whole back portion of the restaurant looked like it had been dipped in nightclub lighting effects. It’s often a wonder to me that even able-brained folks don’t notice the effect.

Have you ever needed to change seats because of a migraine trigger? Do you speak up about it?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Suz
    8 years ago

    I just recently dicsovered this trigger (Lightd ceiling fans)while I was laid up in bed for back pain. I’ve always had the strobe light & flickering sun through the trees while in the car problems. So this trigger makes sense. It annoys me that I have yet another trigger but at least I know it and can prevent it or remove myself from the situation when necessary.

  • Beth
    8 years ago

    Yes. Especially when the sunlight flickers through the trees. Makes me car sick as well. Add a bumpy road and I will surely vomit. Florescent light bulbs have always made me sick. I chose a career that is in the dark. What is up with all these new headlights? They are pink-, green-, and blue-ish. All way too bright. Why is there three sets of lights on most cars? I don’t drive much anymore.

  • Deborah Marie
    8 years ago

    I look at a social place and review location: for noise and light but check on this. I was told by a neurologist that the new energy saver lights and a fan at a certain (depends on person) can tigger aura and seizures. I have had the seizures which are “zone out” then migraine.

  • Brenda Lewis Carroll
    8 years ago

    Fluorescent lights can be horrible for migraines and ceiling fans just add to it and certain patterns like checkers or stripes can also.

  • Janene Zielinski
    8 years ago

    Yes! The lights, the draft, other people’s perfume/cologne, strong smell of spilled beer, bright sun coming through a window… I could go on and on. The number one problem for me though in restaurants is air conditioning turned so low I feel like I’m in their cooler. I am extremely sensitive to temperature fluctuations and being cold is a huge trigger for me. I am the weird lady that wears a coat in the restaurant and takes a blanket to the movies while my husband is in his shorts and T-Shirt. It is embarrassing sometimes and frustrating… but seems a minor problem when I think of all the people who can’t go out at all.

  • Jamie Valendy
    8 years ago

    I’m super sensitive to lights. The strobe effect that happens so often at restaurants makes me ill (migraine and nausea). I’m always mindful of where to sit at a restaurant table, trying to balance the pros and cons of sitting facing the window versus facing the rest of the restaurant. A few of my family members ask me to make sure a table we’re being seated at is going to be okay, and allow me to choose whichever seat I’d be most comfortable in. I really appreciate them taking those steps because I’m much more likely to be able to enjoy my time out with them.

  • Marietta Johnson
    8 years ago

    I thought it was only me! I thought I was going to have to leave church Sunday because of the ceiling fan doing that! And have changed seats and/or left restaurants multiple times because of those bright lights used to “highlight” their decor or whatever they are using them for. Shopping in most mall stores can be a huge problem and I no longer enjoy shopping because of these migraine triggers walking through the store. Most of the time when I have changed seats, the waitress has been very understanding, some have even said that other people have told them the lights bother them, a few sigh and roll their eyes, but then so do some friends and family members when this happens.

  • Louise M. Houle
    8 years ago

    I mostly find myself sitting with my back to the sunlight when I go to restaurants. And I will change seats if need be. Not big on suffering in silence 🙂

  • Jennifer Guzman
    8 years ago

    I have many ceiling fans in my home, and I rarely turn them on because of the effect on my head. I also notice being out on a fall breezy day, that that can trigger a migraine or very bad headache also. I wish I new why this happens? We have to do what we have to do..

  • Helen Williams Lopez
    8 years ago

    I have moved many times to get away from ceiling fans, flashing lights, glare, etc. We do not even use seiling fans in our house. Hate the strobe light effect! I also 95% of the time shut my eyes before a picture is taken – so I usually look as if I had a few too many! I belive my respose to the flash on a camera is just me going into protective mode to help prevent a migraine. Down side – not many phots of my with my eyes completely open. (In fact look closely at the picture attached to this comment.)

  • questionable
    8 years ago

    The exact same things happen to me: Venetian blinds are always a source of constant strobe lights, the stupid lights above ceiling fans, the florescent light bulbs that the government mandated us to buy. All of these cause major triggers for me–pretty much, instant migraine.

    I love that you took the time to explain to the hostess about lighting and migraineurs. Often people are genuinely interested!

  • Angie Bowman
    8 years ago


    8 years ago

    Angie – We have several articles on Botox for chronic migraine; it was approved late last year. You can view the articles here:

  • Tammy Howard
    8 years ago

    I choose seating to where there is nobody around and then a few minutes later the place is loaded with people. Colognes trigger my migraines. I have a friend that knows I have this problem and still continues to spray before we go anywhere. Her excuse is, I stood outside for a few minutes before you got here hoping it wouldn’t be too strong for you. I just want to tell her forget it, I can’t stand the smell. What do you do in that case?

  • Louise M. Houle
    8 years ago

    Some people just don’t get it no matter how much you explain. There was a secretary at a migraine clinic, imagine that, who wore perfume. Very smelly perfume. I’d tell her every time I went there that it was making me sick – and even mentioned that not wearing it was a sign of respect for migraineurs. Nothing doing. She just kept on wearing it, like it was her right to do so. Arggh!

  • Kimberly Darling Rankin
    8 years ago

    I absolutely have had to do this. I even left one place in the middle of a meal– just told them to bag it, and I’d eat it at home, because there wasn’t a seat in the house that didn’t have the lights behind the ceiling fans. There’s a certain kind of disappointment that accompanies this situation for me that I can’t quite put my finger on.

  • Benice Shaw
    8 years ago

    I have had to ask to be moved to seats that were not directly under lights and I even had a teacher in a business class turn off half of the lights so I could stay in class. It is a huge trigger.

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