Scientists Verify That Light Does Worsen Migraines

Dennis Faas's picture

Ever wonder why the glow of your computer monitor makes that late-day headache even worse? Or how the piercing sunset on the drive home makes you want to drill into the side of your skull in some vain attempt to relieve the pressure? Then take note of a recent study by Boston-based researchers who say they can now verify that light affects migraine headaches.

In a report published Sunday through Nature Neuroscience, Boston researchers have found that certain cells in the brain, referred to as the thalamus, can sometimes act as a sort-of battleground for information based on the brain's visual system and its pain system. (Source:

Even Blind Migraine Sufferers Affected by Light

In an interview, director of the Montefiore Headache Center and professor of neurology and epidemiology at Albert Einstein college of Medicine Dr. Richard Lipton referred to the thalamus as a place "where information from the visual system and information from the pain system converge, and that anatomic convergence provides the first available explanation for how it could be that light makes pain worse."

Most migraine sufferers -- upwards of 90 per cent -- report that light makes their headaches worse. This is often referred to as photophobia by professionals, who aren't sure what they can do with the new research but are certainly glad to have it. "This gives us a little better insight as to the theory and mechanism behind migraine," noted Dr. Michael Palm, an assistant professor at Texas A&M. "We are making progress in understanding this phenomenon." (Source:

New Treatment a Ways Off

Although it's unlikely this will lead to a new type of over-the-counter migraine remedy in the coming weeks or months, it could help in researching this widespread problem, which every year costs employers countless hours in lost productivity.

"[Up until this discovery, we] had no clue in the world where in the world light and pain talk to each other in the brain," said Rami Bustein, the study's senior author and an assistant professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "They have completely different pathways in the brain."

Report: Migraine Sufferers Are Not 'Whiners'

Most surprising was the study's finding that certain blind people felt the same way about light during a migraine.

Researchers studied the effect light had on 20 blind participants, each of whom complained of regular migraines. While the six participants who could see absolutely no light reported no photophobia, those who could see even some light said it worsened the headache.

"This told us that the optic nerve is critically needed in order to produce photophobia or exacerbation of the headache by light," Burstein said. "This provides an anatomic and physiological basis for a common experience -- that light makes pain worse, not because you're a whiner, but because there is an anatomic pathway that links the visual system to the pathway that produces head pain," added Lipton.

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