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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.

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.

  1. Rossi, H. L., & Recober, A. (2015). Photophobia in Primary Headaches. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain.
  2. Vanagaite, J., Pareja, J. A., Støren, O., White, L. R., Sand, T., & Stovner, L. J. (1997). Light-induced discomfort and pain in migraine. Cephalalgia, 17(7), 733-741.


  • Casingda
    5 years ago

    I understand the problem of photophobia so well. There are times when I wear sunglasses indoors during the day. This Is usually when I have a migraine and I’m working at my seasonal job. I explain to my clients why I’m wearing them. I’ve never once had a negative reaction. If I’m going through a period of migraines, I may need to wear them if I’m indoors for any length of time where I’m exposed to fluorescent light. I wear them when I’m outdoors and it’s sunny all the time. My home environment is one where I stay in a room that is mainly dark, 24/7, since I really don’t like to be exposed to bright light a lot of the time. I use a lamp that has the lampshade covered to keep the light dim, and I do just fine.

    I’m also quite sensitive to noise. I keep my environment very quiet for the most part, too.

    I don’t know how many other migraneurs go to this extreme to keep their environment as stimulus-free as I do, but, after 45 plus years of migraines, I do what I need to to keep myself as comfortable as I can. It’s well worth it.

  • migrainestl
    5 years ago

    At my Dr apt today I mentioned how I’m always sensitive to light, but the severity varies. My neuro told me that’s not surprising since I’m blond & fair skinned.

    I gave her a puzzled look & said “there’s a correlation?!” She said yes. Most of my family is blond & fair yet I’m the only one w/ the sensitivity. Lucky me!!

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Yes, people with light eyes are often more sensitive to light than those with dark eyes. People with migraine and light eyes have a double whammy.

    Take care,

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