The Pros and Cons of Screen Time

When my doctor said that she was not a fan of social media for people with migraine because computer screens are triggering, I knew she probably had some good science to back her up. I looked into it, and much to my dismay, she does.

According to one study from the Headache Research Foundation in Boston, computer screens and television exposure triggered significantly more head pain for people with chronic headache as compared to the control group. They concluded that eye strain factors are “far more important than is generally recognized” for people with chronic head pain.¹

I found several studies suggesting that people with migraine have a hyper-excitable visual cortex, making them particularly susceptible to pain as a result of visual stimuli. One article explains, “A strong physiological visual input may cause a spread of excitation through hyper-excitable cortex, leading to neurons firing inappropriately and thereby resulting in perceptual illusions and distortions, and possibly promoting a migraine attack.”²

There have been further studies done to determine the specific impact of “VDAs” (computer monitors) on office workers, and all results, whether caused by the screen itself, poor posture, or work-related stress, point to screen time as a potential trigger for head pain.³

My research was far from exhaustive (I’m trying to minimize my screen time, okay?), but it’s clear that the medical community has established a clear link, not just between visual stimuli and migraine, but also between migraine and the computer screens that are all pervasive in our modern lives.

I know from my own experience that television monitors, computer screens, movie theatres, and smartphones are all potent migraine triggers for me, but nonetheless I find myself in front of them for hours every day.

Why do I find it so hard to unplug?

Despite my wish to minimize screen time, my perpetual use is not a mere lack of willpower, because these things are a necessary part of my everyday life and work. Not only are they necessary in how I support myself financially, but they have also come to feel necessary on an emotional level. Social media can be a place for learning, commiserating, and feeling the presence of others who understand what I’m going through. Hashtags such as #spoonieproblems, #chroniclife and #migraine are my happy place. TV and computer time can be helpful distractions when I just want to take my mind off the pain. Sites such as this one provide helpful information that I can take to my doctor to help in devising an effective treatment plan. And lastly (but not leastly), the aesthetic perfection of my Pinterest feed soothes my soul!!

I suppose that the amount of screen time we allow ourselves is like every other daily micro-decision made when dealing with migraine triggers: we must constantly weigh the benefits and costs to our health, and check in with our body from moment to moment to gauge what feels okay.

Some things that might help our visual cortex chill out include:

  • Colored lenses
  • Aps such as “f.lux” that alter computer screen to mimic the time of day
  • Avoiding computer use two hours before bed
  • An ergonomic computer station

What strategies help you to deal with triggering screen time?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. 1. Vincent AJ, Spierings EL, Messinger HB. A Controlled Study of Visual Symptoms and Eye Strain Factors in Chronic Headache. Headache Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 1989;29(8):523–527.
  2. 2. Harle DE, Shepherd AJ, Evans BJ. Visual Stimuli Are Common Triggers of Migraine and Are Associated With Pattern Glare. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain2006;46(9):1431–1440
  3. 3. Friedman DI, Dye TDV. Migraine and the Environment. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain2009;49(6):941–952.

Comments

View Comments (8)
  • Hope and a Prayer
    3 years ago

    Another situation that leaves me having to choose between a rock and a hard place. I’m not sure if screen time triggers attacks, but I do know it can make my symptoms worse. So, I’m on the bed, in the dark, by myself, can’t read a book … bored. Even with a lot of pain I can get bored. After a few days of pain in bed I’m definitely bored. My phone and laptop are a great distraction from both the boredom and the pain. With earplugs in I can still play games and look at social media. If I take them out I can watch a show as I find the control over volume is so much better with a headset. Sometimes it’s really apparent that I just can’t look at the screen, even with the brightness dimmed, and I find that quite frustrating. Sometimes I know it would be best if I didn’t look at the screen, but it can be so had to turn away. When I don’t, I take breaks and find it helpful to put on an eye mask for a while. I’ve always found it soothing to rub my palms together and then gently lay them over my eyes. I turn down the brightness and wear sunglasses and make sure the contrast between the ambient light and the screen is not too stark. In the end, these things may not be enough to make me comfortable, but watching what’s on the screen can more comfortable than being bored and feeling alone.

  • helrose28
    3 years ago

    I have problems with looking at my mobile – sparkly aura which lasts for a while and then headache. Sometimes looking/writing on bright white paper and metal objects i.e. cutlery if they catch a bright shiney light – know it sounds daft but if it catches my eye I get a sparkly aura and then pain in the eyes. I enlarged the font on my mobile phone which has helped when I write texts. I am getting more and more episodes. Can happen any time. I have started to wear dark glasses when on laptop. Are there any eye exercises for eye strain?

  • pami
    3 years ago

    There’s a 20/20/20 rule that someone shared with me which works for the most part, unless you’re in the middle of an attack. Every 20 minutes you look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Give it a try! I agree that my Pinterest boards are a great distraction and I like to see how the other migraineurs are coping.

  • Sean
    3 years ago

    Finally I’m not the only one with this problem. It became obvious that the less time I spent on the computer the fewer migs I had, when I got an led display I thought that might help alas no, watch it with the brightness all the way down and still I have to limit my time, used an app for awhile that was great, it was for color blind people and made all pages black background with letters in white, banners a beige color and photos stayed the same, but found out it was cause of computer problems-it was an old app-so back to square one. Daytime viewing is not as bad as nighttime and if I need to actually see something on say ebay I have to turn bright up and if I forget to turn it back down the possibilities for a mig increases, I thought going from those old tv type screens would help and unless I can find an app that won’t cause problems I just have to avoid being on at night which is when most people are on social media. Just read about the f.lux app below so will give that a try.

  • 23r1c5h
    3 years ago

    Absolutely, hands down the f.lux app is the way to go for me. I have struggled with eye strain for years, brought on by binge reading all 1141 pages of the original uncut The Stand by Stephen King in three days. I’ve tried other programs to change the hue of my screens (I tether a 22″ flat screen to my laptop sometimes) by f.lux is the end all for me.

    You can change the various color settings so if the screen is still too bright or too blue you have control. It is always incredible to see your computer screen change throughout the day and if you have your longitude/latitude entered in correctly it makes it that much better and more accurate.

    I found myself just minutes away from a raging headache one evening while I was on my computer and a friend shot me a link to f.lux. My eyesight was getting so bad that even with my glasses on, I had double vision and every word on the screen was fuzzy. Within an hour after installing and tweaking f.lux – the headache was completely gone, I could take my glasses off and the relief in my eyes was incredible. Since then, I’ve woke up with that refreshed feeling in my eyes, like they actually DID get rested properly and my daily nuisance headache I start with has disappeared. It’s the best thing I have ever installed and it’s free.

  • rebecca
    3 years ago

    I recently switched to contacts, and I find that it’s easier for me to use the computer now because I can see more clearly. I use reading glasses over them (my eyes have issues) but I have more comfort this way than I did even with computer glasses. I do want to get a pair of tinted reading glasses, though, specifically for the computer and the phone.

    When my migraines get bad I just give up and hide under the covers though; photophobia is my worst symptom other than the pain and sometimes there’s only so much I can do.

  • mammapeaches (Susan McManus)
    3 years ago

    I was having trouble with my desktop monitor, but my Surface tablet did not bother me as much. I recently replaced the desktop monitor with a flat screen one and it has really made a difference. I also have the brightness turned down on any and all devices.

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Anna,
    I do all of those things actually, and they help me a lot!
    I wear TheraSpecs which are the difference between being able to look at a computer for a few minutes to a few hours. I keep f.lux on the most soothing setting for my eyes. I stop using a screen at 9 (though my bedtime is 10:30 so I could stop earlier I suppose), and I have a veridesk (sit/stand workstation). They all help immensely. I definitely feel like I’m more sensitive than people without migraine or headache, so it’s great to have these tools.
    I am lucky though, since I am not an office worker, that at my job I’m rarely in front of a computer all day. So I am very lucky in that respect too.
    Lisa

  • Poll