Facts About Photophobia and Migraine

Photophobia is one of the hallmark symptoms of migraine and can also be a symptom of other headache disorders. The journal Headache published an exploration photophobia and headache disorders in the March 2015 issue.1 The overview is intended for health care providers, but the information is fascinating to anyone who experiences photophobia. Here’s a quick look at some major points covered in the article:

Photophobia is technically defined as “excessive or irrational fear of light.” In medicine, however, it refers to pain or discomfort that’s caused by light. (People sometimes use the word photosensitivity instead of photophobia, but, medically, photosensitivity means skin is sensitive to light.)

Light can worsen head pain in people with migraine, tension-type headache, or cluster headache, but it can also cause significant pain in the eye itself.

Light can trigger a migraine or cluster headache attack.

People with migraine are bothered by light at a much lower brightness than those with no headache disorder. In one study, people with migraine experienced discomfort at as little as 2% of the intensity of light that people without headache disorders found problematic. For people without headache disorders, light became too bright when it hit 23,000 lux (like a bright, sunny, cloudless day). Even at that intensity, 24% were not bothered at all by the brightness. In contrast, people with migraine experienced discomfort at between 500 and 1,000 lux (equivalent to an overcast day).2

Most people with migraine describe even low levels of light as glaring or painful during an attack. In one study, sensitivity to light was reported by every single person with migraine.2

People with migraine have higher than normal levels of photophobia between migraine attacks.

People with tension-type headache have a level of light sensitivity that falls between that of a migraineur during and between attacks.

Photophobia occurs in both eyes, even when migraine pain is confined to one side of the head.

Applying ice to the foreheads of people with migraine increases their sensitivity to light. It does not increase the photophobia in people who do not have migraine.

Although migraine, tension-type headache, and cluster headache can all cause photophobia, it’s believed that the underlying mechanisms differ.

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