Migraine Awareness Month #8: "Let there be light."

Migraine Awareness Month #8: "Let there be light: Most Migraineurs have issues with light sensitivity. What do you do to cope with it?

Two dozen tips for light sensitive Migraineurs.

One of the most frequent symptoms of Migraine is light sensitivity, also known as photophobia. We need light to see and function in our everyday lives, but when you’re a Migraineur it can cause pain ranging from mild to excruciating. Light sensitivity was a big enough problem for me when I was episodic, but when I became chronic it was clear that some big changes needed to be made.

Below are some of the things our family has done to reduce this problem. Some are extremely drastic, others are easy. I wanted to share them with you because there might be one or two ideas that you can apply to your own life in the future.

  1. Incandescent light bulbs. These bulbs are being phased out by the US government, forcing those who are extremely light sensitive to purchase and hoard large numbers of them in the interest of their health. While this is the easiest light for most patients, it will soon be the scarcest. Incandescent bulbs do not last forever, even unused. For best results, they can be stored carefully in temperature controlled areas of the home. Some patients may even choose to store them in vacuum sealed bags to further protect them.
  2. Light tubes. These are similar to skylights, but are large reflective tubes that conduct outdoor ambient lighting into your space. Sometimes when there is sufficient ambient lighting in a room where there are also fluorescents, patients can get by using them. Light tubes can be *shut off* almost like a regular light so it’s there when you want it, and gone when you don’t. The disadvantage is that this light is only as good as the sun giving it. At nighttime or during storms, it will not be helpful.
  3. Gas lighting. We actually briefly considered this type of lighting since I am so sensitive to light, and because we demo ’d our house all the way down to the studs and rafters. We live near a population of Amish who use this type of lighting daily. Believe it or not, it is still commercially available and not prohibitively expensive. It is however, a potential fire hazard and may not be advantageous when you re-sell your home unless you have also simultaneously installed electrical lighting. I do worry about carbon monoxide too. You’ll want to check with your insurance company about restrictions as well.
  4. Fluorescent covers. If you have no choice but to use fluorescent lighting, covers are commercially available that can help make the light less offensive to Migraine and other patients whose health is affected by this type of lighting. It won’t change the flicker, but if you are using CFL’s and it is the quality of the light that hurts or the UV rays causing the problem, these covers may be helpful.
  5. Colored shades. These are common in white, typically used on table and floor lights, and are becoming more popular on installed lighting as well. You can make your own by purchasing a white shade and painting the inside a pleasing color. In vogue right now are black shades. When the inside of these are painted with another color, the effect is really beautiful.
  6. Overhead lighting. The use of overhead lighting is less aesthetically pleasing to some, but gives the photophobic patient the option of not looking directly at the light source when it is turned on. When we remodeled our home, we utilized a lot of “can lights” embedded into the ceiling. Many of ours are directional, and we’ve pointed them toward the walls where artwork or photos have been placed. On days this isn’t sufficient, sometimes wearing a baseball cap keeps the light away from eyes enough that it isn’t a problem. If that’s still not enough consider #7.
  7. Light dimmer switches. These switches can be installed for most ceiling light fixtures and allow you to custom set the amount of light in the room for maximum comfort. Some of the newer light bulbs and fixtures are not compatible with dimmers, or you may need special dimmers, so be sure to check with your electrician before you have them installed. Use these in any room including bedrooms, bathrooms (my personal favs) and closets .
  8. Computer monitors. Old monitors flicker. This setting can be changed and can add immense relief for some patients. You can also change the brightness of any monitor. I chose to change my regular monitor out for a new one - an HD television. My new “monitor” is large and limits eyestrain, but there is also no flicker and I have set the brightness where it is comfortable for me.
  9. Televisions. Televisions have an option for darkening the screen. Some call this Game Mode. Check your instruction booklet for options on your set.
  10. Tinted overlays. These plastic overlay sheets can be purchased from the Irlen Institute and can be used over computer screens, televisions, kindles, books and newspapers etc. Irlen offers testing that will identify the specific color which minimizes your symptoms. Some people do better with specific colors, and this testing will help you find which is just right for you. They also offer custom tinting of glasses, contacts etc.
  11. Bedding. Crawling into deeply colored bedding can be relaxing to Migrainey brains. White sheets are beautiful, but will bounce any light that might be present in the room right back at your face. You might be amazed at what a difference this tip can make during an attack.
  12. Bed canopy. These were used in many homes until the last 100 yrs. They were more like curtains hung around a bed at that time. A deeply colored bed canopy can be closed around you for additional quiet and darkness. You needn’t purchase a bed with a canopy however. You can easily purchase and install canopies that hang from hooks in the ceiling, or if you’re handy, ceiling mount three curtain rods and hang rod pocket drapes (or even dark sheets) from them. Tie them back at the headboard, and together at the foot when you’re not using them. If you make sure they’re quite full, the result is an attention-getting custom tailored look in your bedroom.
  13. Paint your walls. It is often helpful to pick a pleasing, yet deep shade of color for your walls. White or off white tend to act like a mirror, allowing light to bounce off the walls and creating a feeling of being surrounded by light throughout the room. The effect can be beautiful, but if you’re light sensitive, you will probably want to avoid light colors. If you’re afraid you house will look like a cave, consider creating a Migraine Room where you are able to go during an attack for maximum comfort.
  14. Change your countertops. White or light colored counter tops in the kitchen area can make for miserable patients trying to function in this room, especially if you have ceiling lights or windows. Counter tops do not have to be expensive to change, and can make your entire kitchen look brand new. Once those white or beige tops are gone, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to work in your kitchen. (I changed mine to inexpensive black granite tiles and my life was literally changed)
  15. Light blocking drapes/liners. Most department and discount stores sell liners that may be added to your existing window treatments to completely block the light. There are also specially made drapes with this same effect. To be doubly sure no light will get by, consider using both.
  16. Tint your car windows. While many states prohibit the tinting of most or some windows in your vehicle, most states will also allow you to get a waiver for health issues like Migraine. The process is not necessarily cheap, but if you spend more than a small amount of time in your car, it might be something to seriously consider.
  17. Car shades. Commonly used when an infant or child is in the car, these attach to side windows with suction cups or hooks and can be rolled up or down as needed. The drawback is that they cannot be used on the front or rear windshields and may not cover the full side windows.
  18. Tint your house windows. We went *all the way* and put in all new windows and doors in our home. Three of the doors are not tinted, but are exposed to very little light. All the windows have the max UV protected tinting available. This has allowed me to roam the house without the aid of sunglasses for the first time since becoming chronic. They allowed me to remove the black trash bags from behind the curtains (yes, black trash bags — ugh) and leave drapes OPEN! It was so helpful I was even able to paint my walls a lighter color to cheer me up during the day. The downside is that UV protection means you will need to move your houseplants to windows that are not protected. Additionally, birds don’t understand tinted windows and your house may suffer frequent collisions for a while. I miss the houseplants and the birds we lost that first year, but I still give this tip 5 stars as the thing that was the most helpful for me and getting my life back.
  19. Window awnings. These are outdoor treatments that hang over the top of the windows, shading them and preventing direct sunlight from entering your home. They range from cheap to custom (expensive) and are helpful even on northern exposures. Because of the tinting we have, we found awnings to be unnecessary.
  20. Plant landscaping. Carefully planned landscaping can be very important to Migraine patients. It acts as shade so when we want to look outdoors we’re not seeing direct sunlight. Even through tinted UV protected windows, direct sun can be harsh and painful. A few tree and bush types grow extremely quickly (feet each year instead of inches) and are good choices for patients. Mature trees can be moved, but the process is a bit more complicated (and expensive) than one might think. Check with your local extension office for the nearest tree moving company.
  21. Stained glass. Not everyone is going to be able to purchase or make their own windows, but as an art glass designer/artist I could, so I did. For the short time each day it receives direct sunlight, the colored glass glows and the light is scattered, and it is rarely a problem for me to be in the room with it.
  22. Electrical tape. I use this liberally because I am sensitive to blue computer lights that seem to be everywhere. There are other options — stickers specially designed to cover these little lights, but when I ran out of them, I found that black electrical tape was just as effective.
  23. Colored cellophane wrapping. This is often used for wrapping flowers or gift baskets and is available in most department and discount stores as well as floral outlets and craft stores. I use this for larger lit items, like the controller to my massage chair that is covered in lighted options, or the digital clock with the blue lights. The cellophane is red and makes the blue a tolerable purple color without looking too obnoxious. You can hide it pretty easily, or get creative with it — your choice.
  24. Plan your trips. I learned quickly after moving to this home, that if I need to make a trip into the larger town to the southeast, I need to plan it in the afternoon. Trips to the west are made in the morning. This allows me to avoid the sun streaming through trees that create a blinking effect as I drive by them. Whenever possible I drive away from the light, or perpendicular to it so it streams in the passenger side. I also plan my airline seating this way — keeping in mind my direction going to and from my destination so I don’t have to bother other passengers by asking them to shut mutually shared windows they might enjoy looking through.

Now that you’ve read my tips, what have you tried in your home that has been helpful to you as a Migraineur? Please share

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