Light Sensitivity headaches, Woman suffers from headaches caused by light
Research suggests a new pathway exists between the brain and the eye that does not produce vision but can trigger pain. The pathway begins at the back of the eye and travels through the optic nerve.

Migraine Headaches Caused by Light Sensitivity

Over 90% of migraine sufferers are sensitive to light.[1,2] During a migraine attack, sufferers are bothered by light and prefer to be in a dark room. Migraineurs are particularly sensitive to non-incandescent indoor lighting sources such as fluorescent lights, computer monitors, and gas-vapor lamps.

Migraine Sufferers Report Light Sensitivity

Although nearly all migraine sufferers report light sensitivity (photophobia) during attacks, and many report that light can trigger an attack, there are no treatments that specifically address this facet of this disease.

Ocular Migraine or “Migraine with Aura”

About a third of the migraine sufferers in the U.S. experience migraine with aura. [3] Of course, everyone is different, and symptoms vary by person and sometimes by attack. These migraines are believed to be caused by the same stimuli as a normal migraine headache, but the symptoms vary.  Ocular migraine symptoms may come in the form of enlarging blind spot, wavy or zig-zag lines surrounding the blind spot, and other vision impairments. Often these migraines are painless and will resolve without medication in 20 to 30 minutes. Learn more about ocular migraines and migraines with an aura.

The Science behind Light Sensitivity

What Causes Light Sensitivity?  The physiological basis of light sensitivity has always been a mystery: Why is it that when one looks at a bright light, such as the sun, one feels pain? Why can light trigger a painful migraine attack? What part of the eye transforms light into a painful stimulus?

Many parts of the eye work together to transform light rays passing through your pupil into images that your brain can interpret. The retina is the very back of the eye and holds millions of cells that are sensitive to light. The retina takes the light the eye receives and converts it into electrical signals so the brain can interpret what the eye is seeing.



ocular migraine triggers and light sensitivity
Cells found in the ganglion cell layer of the retina appear to be the beginning of the light-induced “pain pathway”. These light-sensitive cells may be responsible for triggering light sensitivity and headaches.

Light Sensitivity Can Produce Pain

However, research performed in 2010 by Harvard and University of Utah scientists suggest that an additional pathway between the eye and brain exists that does not produce images – it may produce pain. [4] In the early 1990’s, a unique subset of cells in the retina were found to be intrinsically sensitive to light.

It is likely that the pain pathway begins with these intrinsically light sensitive cells and can transform light absorbed by the eye into a painful stimulus. This pain pathway is completely separate from and independent of the image-forming pathway. [5] Because it is a separate pathway, even some profoundly blind patients can be profoundly light sensitive. [6]



1 Source: Evans RW, Seifert T, Kailasam J, Mathew NT. The use of questions to determine the presence of photophobia and photophobia during migraine. Headache 2008;48:395-7.
2 Source: Main A, Dowson A, Gross M. Photophobia and photophobia in migraineurs between attacks. Headache. 1997. 37:492-5.
3 Source: Cortical spreading depression—Migraine: a complex genetic disorder; Lancet Neurology, Wessman, 2007
4 Source: Noseda R, Kainz V, Jakubowski M, Gooley JJ, Saper CB, Digre K, Burstein R. A neural mechanism for exacerbation of headache by light. Nat Neurosci. 2010. 13:239-45.
5 Source: Güler AD, Ecker JL, Lall GS, et al. Melanopsin cells are the principal conduits for rod-cone input to non-image-forming vision. Nature. 2008. 453:102-5.
6 Source: Amini A, Digre K, Couldwell WT. Photophobia in a blind patient: An alternate visual pathway. Case report. J Neurosurg. 2006. 105:765-8.

12 thoughts on “Light Sensitivity Triggers Migraines

  1. Anon says:

    Has anyone had a migraine triggered by the bright light of an ophthalmic exam? This occurred to me recently; now l fear further ophthalmic exam, but may need it due to eye pain.

    • Lee says:

      I have light sensitivity 24/7. I have an extremely tinted pair of sunglasses that I have to wear anytime I am exposed to sunlight or florescent lights. I also have a lighter tint I wear at night to drive and dull on coming headlights. If I am exposed to sun light even for a short period without my sun glasses it triggers a severe migraine.. All the windows in my car are tinted even the windshield which I needed a special ok from the dmv for.. light sensitivity is not a good thing to have living in Arizona where it’s clear and sunny what seems like 90 percent of the time and the sun seems more intense at times..
      Your not alone..

      • christian says:

        Hi my name is Christian, I have exactly the same problem as Lee. Is there no cure for this disease whatsoever? Thank you.

  2. kay warner says:

    Yes, I had a very bad reaction to High Resolution Tomography in the opthalmology clinic. The bright light caused actual pain, and afterwards I had one of the worst migraine attacks I’ve ever experienced. A warning not to use it was put on my clinic notes and I was also advised to let my GP know. The usual eye examinations don’t cause a problem for me.

  3. jimmy says:

    i also suffer from light sensitivity. Any exposure to the outdoors without sunglasses sets of an immediate migraine and some indoor situations do as well. Even with the glasses I am limited to time I can spend outdoors. Does anyone know of any place in America for treatment. I have tried many things but nothing has helped.

    • Lori Glover says:

      Axon Optics glasses block the light that has been implicated in triggering sensitivity to light and migraine. Our SpectraShield FL-41 is effective for about 90% of our customers.

      Axon Optics offers a 30 day return/purchase price refund policy so customers can test our product for a trial period. Whether you have perfect vision or need prescription lenses, we recommend first trying our non-prescription lenses in one of our frames to be sure the lens helps you before investing in a nonrefundable custom order. One week is the perfect amount of time to try out our lenses. If they haven’t worked after one week, they aren’t likely to help you. Keeping them for more than one week increases the likelihood of the glasses taking wear damage, much like a pair of shoes. We can only accept the return of glasses that are in mint condition, so please take good care of the glasses prior to returning them. While we advise not trying them for more than one week, you have a full 30 days from the date of purchase – please ensure they have been returned to us before the 30 days have passed.

      You can shop our glasses at

  4. Cheryl says:

    I’ve had about 4 episodes in the past 5 years. The first was the worst. The last three I have fought off with caffeine, and pure peppermint oil rubbed on my forehead at the hair line and also inhaled. It just happened this morning when i caught a glimpse of a round crystal reflecting bright light. Sunlight doesn’t seem to bother me. I immediately had the round crystal shape become a zig zag blind spot. I couldn’t read or see clearly.

  5. Mita says:

    I am extremely light sensitive and always need to wear thick sunglasses, a hat and avoid sun. Even though I get bad migraines if exposed to a su ray or light. Working at the computer and exposing to the screen can cause migraines. Can anyone explain what is happening and if there is a cure? So far I have not been able to get any help.

    • Lori Glover says:

      The visual spectrum, the wavelengths of light that the human eye can see, include long wavelength light (red) all the way through short wavelength light (blue). The visual spectrum includes all colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Red and orange have longer wavelengths and blue/indigo/violet have shorter wavelengths.
      Infrared light (heat) is invisible to us because it has a wavelength longer than red, thus the name “infra-red” (literally “Below-Red”). Infrared technology is used in many technologies, including night-vision goggles, LEDs (Light-emitting diodes), and telescopes that look into outer space. Most of the heat emitted from objects is infrared.

      Ultraviolet light (UV) is invisible to us because it has a shorter wavelength, thus the name “ultra-violet” (Literally “Beyond-Violet”). UV light cannot be seen, but has the potential to damage our skin and eyes. We need a small amount of UV light to help our bodies make Vitamin D. UV light is also used in inventions, including LEDs (Light-emitting diodes), forensics, fluorescent dyes, neon signs and black lights, and many more.

    • Lori Glover says:

      Why do some colors HURT? Different wavelengths affect an individual’s comfort level. Some studies have indicated that migraine sufferers experience more discomfort with blue- or red-wavelength light. We can help about 90% of people with light sensitivity (photophobia) with our proprietary blend of FL-41 tinted lenses. Axon Optics lenses filter the portion of the light spectrum which is most distressing to people with light sensitivity (photophobia) and its associated conditions. The filter is especially helpful in relieving pain from fluorescent lights, LEDs, and electronic devices – the majority of our modern world. In addition, all of our lenses block 100% UVA/UVB light for the most therapeutic possible lens. Our research continues on the causes of photophobia, both ocular and neurological.

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