Reviewed by Dr. Bradley Katz, MD, Ph.D. University of Utah Medical Center
If you are living with migraine, you know how debilitating it can be, making you feel drained, uncomfortable, and disconnected from the rest of the world – especially those you love. If you’re here, reading this, you are probably looking for answers – how to escape the pain and isolation and rejoin the world. And we just might be able to help. Migraine attacks are often triggered by light and light will almost always make an attack worse. For ages, people have been searching for a cure for migraine. Sometimes they hit upon something extraordinary.
A 2016 NPR article reviewed a study authored by University of Arizona researcher Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, that found green light may help relieve chronic pain and migraine.
Dr. Ibrahim reported that on average, 60% of patients experienced a significant decrease in their migraine attacks as well as a decrease in the frequency of their migraines from 20 migraines per month down to around six. That’s a big jump! The use of green light to help manage chronic pain and migraine looks like it could be an effective option.
Why green light?
The big question is, how does green light – or any light for that matter – help relieve pain? It may seem a bit far-fetched, but actually it is simple science. During their research, Ibrahim and his colleagues discovered a connection between the pain centers of the brain and the visual system.
They fitted rats with green contacts and found that only animals that had the ability to see the color green experienced a decrease in their pain response. It didn’t matter if they were exposed to external green light or light through green lenses, the results were the same.
Ibrahim’s research, leading up to and including this study, supports his theory that green light therapy can work on pain, migraine, and in many other ways. In fact, the study concluded that, “It’s a concert of mechanisms working in harmony toward a common goal.”
A study published in the July 2016 issue of Brain detailed the findings of researchers at Harvard Medical School as they explored the use of green light for migraine pain. They found that green light is the least likely to make migraine symptoms worse – and by a pretty impressive margin.Green light appears to work by modulating the activity of neurons in the thalamus, a part of the brain that relays information from pain sensors throughout the body to pain centers in the brain. This effect is distinct from the effect of other colors, such as red, amber and blue. This report further supports the effectiveness of green light for migraine pain.
Not everyone agrees on green light
At the Oregon Health Sciences University, Mary Heinricher, professor in the Department of Neurologic Surgery and Vice Chair of Research for the Department, is skeptically optimistic. “The link between light and pain is a promising area of research,” but she asserts that the effect is likely subtle. She would like to see the results of additional human testing before recommending green light therapy.
Dr. Heinricher also notes that the sample sizes in the studies thus far have been small. “We have tended to run to drugs and not thought about intervening in the physical environment,” she says. “This is a wake-up call. There’s something going on there.”
There is some agreement among researchers though that manipulating light to manage migraine and lessen the severity of headache pain is a plausible approach. This agreement is based on the understanding that migraineurs can be very sensitive to light as well as other environmental stimuli. Therefore, using certain types of environmental stimuli, such as specialized light, to treat migraine pain may make sense.
Ripples in the migraine community
The use of tinted lenses to treat migraine has been steadily gaining traction over the past few years and the idea that light sensitivity and pain are linked is not new. In May 2011, another study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University found that precision tinted lenses may work to normalize activity in the brains of migraineurs, thus reducing the pain and discomfort that they experience during an attack.
The researchers assembled two groups. One group of migraineurs and one group of people who did not have migraines. There were 11 people in each group. The researchers created precision ophthalmic tints for each individual in the study as well as two other lenses, one gray and one colored, so the subjects could compare.
The participants were then placed in an MRI machine and shown images of striped patterns that had a high probability of triggering an attack. The patients found different degrees of relief with all of the lenses used, but the precision tinted lenses had the best results, around a 70% reduction in migraine pain.
A report published in the April 2017 issue of Pain identified a possible neural mechanism that links light sensitivity to chronic pain. The focus was on fibromyalgia but did indicate that the findings could be transferred to other types of chronic pain, such as migraine.Another report published in Cephalalgia in July 2019 reviewed the connection between photophobia and migraine pain. However, the authors noted that the condition from which the light sensitivity originates may determine its degree of intensity. They also found that green light did bring about some relief from migraine pain.
Technology in action
Allay, a company applying nearly a decade of Dr. Burstein’s research, offers a lamp called the allay lamp with a unique narrow band of green light that is non-irritating and generates smaller electrical signals in the eye and brain. Researchers are working hard to develop better, more effective green light instruments for pain. Duke University is working on a wearable version that is currently in clinical trials. During the trial they will measure changes in pain level among participants as well as change in opioid dose for pain management. One of the primary benefits of this method is that there are practically zero risks and side effects in wearing glasses.
The company Migralens carries green tinted glasses specifically for light sensitivity and migraine. These unique glasses are designed to absorb the light wavelengths that have been identified as triggers for migraine and light sensitivity according to some of the triggers above. Tinted glasses offer a more practical option as they’re easy to put on and take wherever you go for people who are not always able to sit in a room with green light.
Axon Optics offers the SpectraShield precision tinted lenses for migraine. This tint is designed to block the portion of the light spectrum that is most troublesome for migraineurs and those with light sensitivity. One advantage that the SpectraShield lenses have over other migraine glasses, including green tinted glasses, is that they can be worn indoors without obstructing vision. In many cases the green glasses are a bit too dark for indoors. SpectraShield lenses are not too dark, yet they still block the painful light that causes migraine.
One drawback to an option like Migralens is that those products are focused on only one wavelength and not the entire spectrum, like Axon Optics. Axon Optics also offers a more subtle looking filter, a rose hue as opposed to the dark green tint, which some people might feel more comfortable wearing in public or in social situations. It is also important to note that only 23% of light is transmitted with the MigraLens green tinted glasses, which is not very much and is similar to wearing sunglasses inside (9-15% of light is transmitted with sunglasses), which is not recommended because your eyes could dark adapt.
While the evidence does seem to point to green tinted glasses as a potential solution for migraine, there is not enough substantive evidence to support it as a truly beneficial treatment for headache pain. As more qualified studies are conducted in this area, we will be able to gain better insight into its efficacy for decreasing migraine pain and reducing the number of attacks. “It is very intriguing,” says Dr. Andrew Hershey, co-director of the Headache Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “But it still has a long way to go.” Have you tried green light or green light glasses? What has been your experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Axon Optics has a full line of stylish, high quality glasses for migraine sufferers, each featuring the SpectraShield tint. Shop now and you just may find that you have fewer migraine days.
- Doheny, Kathleen. “Do Tinted Glasses Provide Migraine Relief?” WebMD, WebMD, 27 May 2011, www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/news/20110527/do-tinted-glasses-provide-migraine-relief#1.
- “How Is Axon Optics SpectraShield FL-41 Different than Green Lenses?” Support, support.axonoptics.com/support/solutions/articles/22000237887-how-is-axon-optics-spectrashield-fl-41-different-than-green-lenses-.
- Martenson, Melissa E, et al. “A Possible Neural Mechanism for Photosensitivity in Chronic Pain.” Pain, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4794405/.
- “Migraine Treatment, Migraine Glasses & Migraine Relief from Migralens.” Migralens, www.migralens.com/new/.
- Noseda, et al. “Migraine Photophobia Originating in Cone-Driven Retinal Pathways.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 17 May 2016, academic.oup.com/brain/article/139/7/1971/2464334.
- Noseda, Rodrigo, et al. “Current Understanding of Photophobia, Visual Networks and Headaches.” Cephalalgia : an International Journal of Headache, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6461529/.
- “Opioid Sparing Potential of Light-Induced Analgesia – Full Text View.” Full Text View – ClinicalTrials.gov, clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03890419?term=Padma+gulur&draw=2.
- “Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults – United States, 2016.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Sept. 2019, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6736a2.htm.
- Stone, Will. “Researchers Explore A Drug-Free Idea To Relieve Chronic Pain: Green Light.” NPR, NPR, 15 Dec. 2019, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/15/787138928/researchers-explore-a-drug-free-idea-to-relieve-chronic-pain-green-light.