Sensitivity to Light

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: December 2019

Migraine is the most common medical condition associated with light sensitivity. In fact, light sensitivity is one of the symptoms used to diagnose migraine. Between 85 and 90 percent of people living with migraine feel sensitive to light.1

Photophobia is the medical term for sensitivity to light. In Greek, “photo” means light and “phobia” means fear. So photophobia literally means fear of light. With migraine, being exposed to light causes pain or makes pain worse. Exposure to light sometimes makes other migraine symptoms worse.2

Why does light sensitivity happen with migraine?

It is not clear why light sensitivity occurs with migraine. In some people with migraine, light causes a physical feeling of pain. In others, it causes an emotional reaction or discomfort.2

Blind people with migraine can still experience photophobia, so doctors believe that certain parts of the eye and brain are involved. Those who have had their eyes removed, however, do not feel pain during light sensitivity.2

How is light sensitivity during migraine treated?

The first step in treating light sensitivity is to make sure there is no other cause. Dry eyes and other conditions can cause light sensitivity. If light sensitivity is caused by migraine, treating the migraine usually relieves symptoms.

Other steps to reduce light sensitivity include:

  • Avoid flickering lights and glare
  • Try lightbulbs that emit green light, the only band of light that does not aggravate migraine
  • Try sunglasses or computer screens that change the tint of light you see
  • Lower lighting in your house or office
  • Wear glasses with yellow, orange, or red lenses1

One note of caution: It may increase your sensitivity to light if you avoid it too much. Living in darkness can also make it harder to function when you go somewhere with brighter lights. You can slowly increase your exposure to light to build tolerance.1

Tracking your migraine symptoms

Keeping a record of your migraine symptoms may help you figure out patterns and triggers to your attacks. It may be helpful to record such things as:

  • When and where your pain or symptoms start
  • Whether the pain spreads to your entire head or neck
  • How well and how quickly acute treatment helps reduce the pain or other symptoms
  • How long your pain or symptoms last
  • Whether you experience other symptoms such as vision changes, nausea, or light sensitivity

Community experiences of light sensitivity and migraine advocates write about their experiences with migraine and the associated symptoms, including light sensitivity. In these two videos, advocates share tools and different strategies for dealing with light sensitivity. Screen time is so common these days, but there are pros and cons to how much time is spent in front of a screen. Building migraine caves to cope with photophobia can be helpful but it's important to understand the impact of this migraine symptom.

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