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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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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.


  • Jamie
    8 years ago

    I wear sunglasses at work because we have Florescent lights when its sunny out, I leave the lights in my work area turned off, this seems to help my Migraines when at work.

  • Teri Robert
    8 years ago

    When I told my ophthalmologist I was wearing my sunglasses indoors because of light sensitivity issues, he advised me to stop. He said if I needed tinted glasses for indoors, to get a pair lighter than my sunglasses because our pupils dilate in lower light conditions, and that if I wore them indoors, then went out in the sun, I’d be exposing my eyes to too much sunlight before my pupils had a chance to respond. He also told me that wearing my dark sunglasses indoors would eventually make my eyes more light sensitive. I ended up getting a second pair of sunglasses that weren’t as dark as those I wear outdoors.

    Now, with TheraSpecs and AxonOptics glasses, I use those indoors instead of sunglasses. Have you checked them out?

  • Elaine Gross
    8 years ago

    Thank you Ellen. Great tips! I’m printing this one.

  • Hart Shafer
    8 years ago

    When I was researching the faster-than-you-can-see flicker in fluorescent lights I also read a lot about LEDs. Because LEDs are either completely on (full brightness) or completely off (dark) manufacturers use a trick where they turn them on and off very quickly to simulate dimming them. This method is called “pulse-width modulation” or PWM. I know this is what’s done in LED backlights for computer screens and I believe it’s the only way other LED lights could also be dimmed, too. That means it may be better to turn an LED light/computer screen all the way up and then dim it with a shade or filter instead of dimming it. But the good news is that I didn’t find anything that said that full brightness LEDs flicker at all.

    We tried to go LED in our house but most of the bulbs we tried had a sickly quality, and the one we liked buzzed and drove Kerrie (my wife) nuts! But that was more than a year ago so they may have made big advances since they. The one that buzzed was *so close* to being great.

  • Avery De Marr
    8 years ago

    Is this where we start talking about oxide thickness?

  • Paula Joanne Albers
    8 years ago

    Ellen Schnakenberg Great tips! Question: Although expensive, could the LED’s be used in place of incandescents when they go away. My husband says the LED’s don’t flicker – have you found this to be true (I know they don’t have the gas in them, so there shouldn’t be a flicker -?)?

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    Great thought Paula Joanne Albers, however with LED’s it is the brightness and quality that are the trouble. For me, although the brightness of the bulb itself is intense and certain colors give me an almost immediate Migraine, you still grab an LED flashlight and can’t see where you’re going. You’re right, there is no flicker though. Now that so many have gone to LED Christmas lights, I have a lot of trouble even going to view them. Makes shopping interesting as well. Some colors seem to bother me less than others.

  • Adrienne Brewer Connolly
    8 years ago

    Some of these tips are WONDERFUL. Thank you SO much. I’m definitely going to use the colored cellophane idea on some of the electronics around our house.
    I also wanted to share another option with regard to stained glass. I have done a couple of our windows with Plaid Gallery Glass paints instead of actual glass piece work. If you are not able to take the window out of the track to lay it flat for painting, as I could, you could get a piece of plexi that is the size of the window you’re doing. On the west-facing windows in our house (which is basically the whole main area), this works GREAT for filtering the light.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    Great idea Adrienne! In fact there are many books of patterns for you to create these and they are great fun to do. However, my tip would be to either use a textured glass, or be sure that you use light refractory paints and not the clears. Plaid offers an “etched glass” look that might be okay, but there are other companies that have other “textures” and opaque colors that will make it easier to the eye on a bright day.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    8 years ago

    Hi Jody! I too have to be very careful in choosing the *right* colored glasses for me and my brain. For me I spent years in the wrong color (greys) before accidentally trying on a different color and realizing that I felt so much better. From that point on wearing my shade was very little about fashion and very much about coverage and comfort. Yes, there is some info out there, some of it has been posted here on including: TheraSpecs What color is best for light sensitivity?

  • Jody
    8 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this. I too find dark colored bedding is comforting during a migraine. I have found that the color of sun glasses also makes a difference for me, some actually make it worse. Is there any info on which color and/or shade is best for migraines?

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