Migraine Light Sensitivity: What to Know

Medically Reviewed By Heidi Moawad, M.D.

Light sensitivity is a common migraine symptom. Treating migraine can help alleviate light sensitivity. In the meantime, specific self-care methods for light sensitivity, such as wearing medical tinted glasses, may alleviate symptoms. Migraine-related light sensitivity is common.

However, as other conditions can also cause light sensitivity, talk with a doctor to identify or rule out other possible causes.

Migraine is a common headache type that causes throbbing pain on one side of the head. It is a common reason for light sensitivity, but there are other causes such as dry eye.

This article looks at the causes and mechanisms of light sensitivity during a migraine episode.

Symptoms of migraine light sensitivity

Someone reaches their hand out to sunlight streaming through blinds.
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Symptoms of migraine-related light sensitivity include:

  • light making your eyes feel uncomfortable or makes you squint instinctively
  • frequent need to shield your eyes from light during migraine
  • light making your migraine symptoms worse

You may be sensitive to natural and/or artificial lights.

Migraine-related light sensitivity may cause discomfort before, during, or after the head pain.

A charity called the National Headache Foundation suggests that 80–90% of people with migraine experience light sensitivity during migraine episodes.

As well as light sensitivity, migraine can also cause sensitivity to:

  • sound
  • smell
  • taste
  • touch

Other symptoms

Along with light sensitivity, you may also experience migraine symptoms such as:

Contact a doctor if you have any persistent or severe migraine symptoms, including light sensitivity.

Learn more about migraine symptoms and phases.

Causes of migraine light sensitivity

The exact way migraine causes light sensitivity is unknown. However, experts suggest Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source that certain cells in your eyes may play a role.

The retina is a layer of cells at the back of the eye that helps process light as electrical signals. The optic nerve then sends these signals to the brain to create vision.

Messages from the optic nerve to the brain may affect sensations detected by the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve produces sensations in the neck and face and is a key factor in the development of migraine pain.

Learn more about what causes migraine in people assigned male or female at birth.

Other possible causes of light sensitivity

Many other conditions besides migraine can cause light sensitivity, such as:

A medical diagnosis is the only way to confirm the cause of light sensitivity symptoms. 

Diagnosing migraine light sensitivity

A doctor will first ask about your symptoms, medical history, and family medical history.

Light sensitivity is one of many symptoms included in the International Classification of Headache Disorders criteria for diagnosing migraine. However, you can still receive a migraine diagnosis without experiencing light sensitivity.

As many other conditions can cause light sensitivity, a doctor will identify or rule out other explanations. This may involve tests such as:

  • comprehensive eye exam
  • imaging scans of the eye
  • blood tests
  • allergy tests

Treating migraine light sensitivity

Addressing migraine may help improve migraine-related light sensitivity. Migraine treatment options include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • over-the-counter pain relief medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox)
  • prescription migraine medications to prevent migraine or alleviate pain, such as:
    • beta-blockers
    • calcium channel blockers
    • triptans
    • some antidepressants
  • other medical treatments, such as:
    • botulinum toxin (Botox) injections
    • nerve block injections
    • nerve stimulation

Learn more about preventive medications for migraine and common migraine medications.

Alongside migraine treatment, your medical team may also recommend specific light sensitivity treatment. Options include:

  • Glasses with tinted lenses: FL-41 tinted lenses, blue-blocking lenses, or red lenses can help reduce light exposure.
  • Pure green wavelength therapy: Exposing your eyes to pure green wavelengths may help with sensitivity. However, not all green lights are effective, and overexposure to light may worsen symptoms. Talk with an eye doctor for product recommendations.
  • Sunglasses: Wearing sunglasses while outside may reduce eye discomfort from sunlight.

Management and self-care with migraine light sensitivity

Self-care approaches may help you with light sensitivity and other migraine symptoms and can include:

  • resting as much as possible
  • sleeping or lying down in a darkened room during migraine
  • keeping a symptom and activity diary to identify migraine triggers and avoid them
  • getting enough good quality sleep
  • managing stress
  • staying hydrated
  • limiting alcohol and caffeine intake
  • not skipping meals
  • getting regular physical activity

Other self-care practices that may help with light sensitivity include:

  • staying out of sunlight
  • using dimmers on indoor lights 
  • reducing the brightness of digital screens

Summary 

Migraine can cause light sensitivity for some people. Researchers are not yet sure of the reason for this.

Treating migraine-related light sensitivity includes addressing migraine itself. Treatment options include medication, wearing special tinted glasses, and avoiding your migraine triggers.

Talk with a doctor if you have any persistent, severe, or concerning symptoms of light sensitivity or migraine.

Other conditions can also cause light sensitivity, so contact a doctor to rule out other causes.

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Medical Reviewer: Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2024 Mar 26
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