Migraines and Photosensitivity: Link, Treatment, and More

Migraines and photosensitivity or photophobia often go together. Doctors often describe photophobia as a symptom of a migraine headache. However, they don’t always appear together.

A person can have a migraine headache without photophobia, and people without a migraine headache can have photophobia.

This article explores the link between migraines and photophobia, how to treat the conditions, and more.

A 2012 article states that people have reported photophobia as a symptom of most forms of migraine, and this is an important criterion in diagnosing migraines.

85 to 90% of migraineurs report that they are sometimes sensitive to light.

However, photophobia isn’t limited to people with migraines. Although migraines are the most common photophobia-related condition, other health problems can arise in addition to sensitivity to light. They can include:

Increased photophobia can also occur due to temporary conditions such as meningitis, conjunctivitis, and corneal abrasions, or due to long-term or recurring conditions such as glaucoma.

People with photophobia are particularly sensitive to bright light, changed lighting conditions or flickering lights. You may also find that your migraine headache symptoms get worse depending on the lighting conditions.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, photophobia is considered one of the most common symptoms of a migraine headache. Doctors can use photosensitivity as part of diagnosing a migraine headache even when there is no pain.

People with photosensitivity often report problems with sensitivity to artificial and natural light before, during, or after a headache.

For some, light can act as a trigger. It can also make your migraine headache worse. As a result, people with migraine headaches and photophobia during a migraine attack can find relief in a dimly lit room.

For migraine headaches, photophobia can occur before the pain occurs or after the pain has subsided. It can also occur between migraines. The National Headache Foundation notes that people with migraines are typically more sensitive to light than others between migraines.

Photophobia can occur due to visual stimuli, such as:

  • flickering lights
  • repeating patterns
  • Glare
  • bright lights
  • Computer screens

Photophobia can also occur from fluorescent light as it contains invisible pulses.

How long photophobia lasts can vary from person to person.

For some, treating their migraine headache will prevent symptoms of photosensitivity from occurring. You may then experience no symptoms until your next migraine headache.

Others may experience photophobia before, during, and after a migraine headache. In these cases, preventative measures such as wearing sunglasses outdoors can help prevent symptoms from occurring.

Photophobia related to migraines can be relieved by treating the migraine headache. However, some people may still notice sensitivity to light between headaches.

Treatment plans for migraines vary from person to person. There are several medications a doctor can try to prevent headache from occurring.

A 2019 article in the journal American Family Physician suggests that while some medications can be effective at preventing migraine attacks, behavior changes can also be beneficial. A person can:

  • manage their environment
  • Avoid behavior triggers such as activities that can cause migraines
  • Make changes in your diet to avoid foods that can trigger a migraine

When a migraine headache occurs, there are several medications a person can find helpful. Some common medications used to treat migraine headaches include:

A person who has a migraine attack can find relief even in a darkened room with minimal noise.

For photophobia that doesn’t go away with treatment for migraines, the American Migraine Foundation states that tinted lenses can help. A doctor may prescribe lenses with a FL-41 tint, blue light blocking, or red lenses to help relieve symptoms.

In some cases, a person may be able to take steps to avoid the occurrence of photophobia. The American Migraine Foundation states that a person can take steps such as:

  • dim the light
  • wear glasses with lenses that can block blue and other rays of light
  • wear sunglasses outside

However, the American Academy of Ophthalmology states that staying in a dark environment for extended periods of time can increase a person’s sensitivity to light. Instead, they recommend slowly adjusting to brighter or different light sources.

While adjusting to brighter or different lights can be beneficial, a person should not do so to an extent that causes discomfort.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, signs that a headache could be a migraine may include:

  • Headaches that are moderate to severe and may be difficult to take
  • Headache that causes a throbbing, pulsating, or throbbing sensation
  • Headache that lasts from 4 hours to several days at a time
  • Headache that causes the person to miss work, school, or social events
  • Headache that gets worse with physical activity or exercise
  • Nausea or vomiting along with the pain
  • Sensitivity to sounds or smells
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • fatigue
  • Mood swings

The pain can appear in one side or the other, in front or behind, or around the eyes.

Triggers are anything that can trigger a migraine headache. They can vary from individual to individual and include environmental and behavioral factors.

Some common triggers are:

  • alcohol
  • caffeine
  • Food like chocolate, cheese and other items with strong odor
  • emphasize
  • hormonal changes
  • Weather changes
  • irregular sleep or changes in your sleep cycle
  • Odors such as perfume or chemicals
  • Dehydration
  • Overuse of medication

Find out more about migraine triggers here.

A person should speak to a doctor if they experience unexplained sensitivity to light and if the sensitivity to light interferes with their daily routine.

People who live with migraine headaches should also speak to a doctor about new symptoms, or if they get more frequent or worse. It is possible that they may need additional therapy or change their current treatment plan.

Migraines and photophobia are related. Photophobia is a common symptom of migraine headaches. Light can also trigger migraine headaches.

Photophobia episodes can go away with effective migraine treatment and prevention, but some people may notice symptoms between migraines.

Lifestyle changes and certain medications can help people manage their migraine headaches.

A person can try special lenses or sunglasses and change their home, work, or school environment to prevent photosensitivity.