“It’s like a dormant volcano always waiting to erupt.” That’s how one migraine sufferer describes the threatening pain constantly lurking in the sinus behind her right eye. It reminds her of the torment she will endure the next time an attack emerges from the dark. Yet ironically, the dark is where she finds her best ally.
Whether to prevent or manage a migraine, patients and specialists agree that avoiding light is a chief strategy. One that helps pull the reigns on an affliction that affects nearly 38 million Americans.
According to the National Institutes of Health, light sensitivity, or photophobia, affects more than 80 percent of those who report these debilitating headaches. Findings from two team studies authored by Dr. Rami Burstein of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School are helping to explain why.
In 2010, Burstein found that specific light-sensing cells in the eye “converge” on cells in the brain that transmit pain1. “Clinically, this research sets the stage for identifying ways to block the pathway so that migraine patients can endure light without pain.” Then, in a 2016 study, he determined that the color of light was found to also matter. Such that green light is more tolerable among migraine sufferers.2
Until research transitions to treatment, the sufferer is the ultimate expert on the recesses of the disease. Beyond throbbing pain and nausea, she tells of auras and blind spots, losing train of thought, forgetting the names of people, places and things. She journals the foods, stressors, smells, sounds and hormonal changes that trigger attacks, and learns to recognize symptoms that precede an episode. All in the hopes the future holds something more than sleeping it off in the dark.
Toward that future, consider new advancements coming to help a migraine sufferer manage light sensitivity:
Light wavelengths associated with sources such as the sun, flickering fluorescents and cool-white LEDs are known to trigger and worsen migraines. Based on the Burstein-authored 2016 study, the less aggravating and possibly pain minimizing effects of narrow pure-wavelength green light may offer new foundations in migraine management.
Studies have been looking into the effectiveness of precision tinted lenses compared to regular sunglasses for migraine patients. Of note are the findings in 2011 by Michigan State University’s Radiology Department Professor Jie Huang and fellow researchers. Their results helped to answer a decades-old question of why color-lenses help. In essence, the lenses help normalize the brain’s reaction to visual “information.” The researchers determined that when glasses are tinted according to individual patient needs, the result can be a 30% improvement on top of the 40% relief experienced when wearing regular sunglasses.
From Forefront to Front Door.
Migraine sufferers are cautioned about relying on dark sunglasses after dark and indoors because it can lead to increased light sensitivity. That in itself creates anticipation of Dr. Burstein’s next bodies of research.
Two of which are underway. One is the pursuit of developing affordable narrow-spectrum green light bulbs. The benefit will be at-home use. Currently, narrow-wavelength LEDs and fluorescents are primarily used in phototherapy treatments; and in the specific case of green, in operating rooms to reduce monitor glare and eyestrain for surgery teams.
Also in the research phase is the development of “FL-41” tint sunglasses to filter out intolerable wavelengths. Though individual patient results are tied to various factors, learning more about the potential of FL-41 tint-specific sunglasses and contact lenses may be a conversation worth having with an eye care specialist.
1: “How Light Boosts Migraine Pain,” March 2010, National Institutes of Health, News In Health
2: “Exposure to Light Causes Emotional and Physical Responses in Migraine Sufferers;” June 26, 2017, Neuroscience News
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Anastasia Howard has specialized in healthcare communications for more than 25 years. As a journalist, marketer and internal communications executive, this Syracuse University alumna offers diverse perspectives on the industry. An NYC native, Anastasia currently resides in LA