Suffering from migraine headaches can ruin a person’s entire day. They are often throbbing, pulsing, or feel like an incredible pain sensation lasting for several hours. When a migraine headache does strike, sufferers often try to find a quiet place—preferably one that’s dimly lit—to help ease their excruciating pain.
A retreat into darkness
It is darkness and the avoidance of bright lights that many migraine sufferers rely on. In fact, it is recommended behavior by medical professionals. This connection between light sensitivity on the exacerbation of migraine symptoms has been very much a mystery.
A team of researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) are confident that they have found a reason for this link. They believe that light-sensitive nerve cells in the eye and centers of the brain regulate mood and other symptoms often attributed to migraines such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and nausea.
The researchers conducted their study by exposing migraine suffers to varying colors of light, documenting their effect on migraine intensity. Interestingly, some participants found light uncomfortable, despite not making their headaches worse.
“We found that exposure to different colors of light could make patients experiencing a migraine feel irritable, angry, nervous, depressed, and anxious. These patients also reported feeling physical discomfort, including tightness in the chest or throat, shortness of breath, light-headedness, and nausea,” said lead author Rami Burstein, Ph.D. The study in question involved 81 people who identified themselves as frequent migraine sufferers and 17 individuals who had never experienced a migraine. Both groups were asked to describe their experience when looking at different colored lights.
Looking for lights role in migraine intensity
The effects of the lights were tested three times: once for those who never experienced migraines, and twice for patients with migraines (once during an attack and once between attacks).
The results showed that all colors of light triggered unpleasant physiological responses in migraine sufferers whenever the light was shown. Additionally, these participants reported intense emotional responses to all colors except green.
Non-migraine suffers did not display any of these types of responses when exposed to different light colors. Interestingly, they reported that all colors evoked pleasant emotions instead.
“We had noticed that light exacerbated headache intensity in participants who perceive light but have no sight as a result of loss of rods and cones, but not in those who lack light perception because of optic nerve degeneration. This suggested the nerves relaying signals from the eye to the brain played a critical role in the discomfort associated with migraine,” said Burstein
This study provides more context and a physical explanation as to why migraine sufferers have negative reactions to light. This information can be used to develop new ways to avoid the pain, negative emotions, and physical discomfort that light creates for those who suffer from migraine headaches.