It’s hard to ignore migraine pain. This throbbing headache can last for hours or even days. Although it affects more than 36 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 55, the exact cause of migraines is still largely unknown.
What is a migraine?
Migraines are different than regular headaches. Headaches can cause mild to severe pressure and aching on both sides of your head, and they can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. “A normal headache feels like someone put a belt around your head and is pressing on it,” says Dr. Carolyn Bernstein, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “You can usually work through it but they’re pretty annoying.”
The three most common types of headaches are: sinus headaches, cluster headaches, and tension headaches. Of these, tension headaches are the most common and are typically caused by stress, muscle strain, or anxiety.
On the other hand, a migraine is a recurrent, throbbing headache that often affects only one side of the head. In addition to pain behind the eyes or ears, migraines can cause nausea and vomiting, vision problems, and sensitivity to sounds and lights. Experts don’t know precisely what causes migraine, although some migraine sufferers can point to certain things that seem to trigger their migraines. “Family history is a big factor, but people have different sensitivities to different triggers,” says Bernstein. These other triggers can include age, sex, hormonal changes, food, alcohol, and poor sleep.
Migraines and light sensitivity
One of the most common symptoms of a migraine is an increased sensitivity to light, called migraine photophobia. This can be so pronounced that migraine sufferers often need total darkness to deal with the pain.
But a recent study published in the journal Brain: A Journal of Neurology suggests that certain colors of light might not be all bad. Researchers found that while migraine headaches are exacerbated by light in general, green light in particular might not be as disruptive as previously thought.
Throughout the study, researchers flashed different colors of light at people suffering from migraines to test changes in migraine intensity, pain rating, sensory perception, and the spread of the migraine from the original site.
Compared to red, blue, and white lights, green light reduced migraine intensity in more than 20% of patients. It was the only light that reduced pain intensity, while white, blue, and red significantly increased pain ratings and muscle tenderness. Finally, more patients described the migraine spreading beyond its point of origin when they were exposed to blue, amber, and red light compared to white and green light. “The green light was easier for people to tolerate, and some people even felt better after seeing it,” says Bernstein, who led the clinical side of the study. “Not everyone had the same response, but overall there were enough data to show green light was preferred.”
Although green light didn’t do anything to cure the headache, this study does open the door for more research and potential therapies using green light down the road.
How do we treat migraine headaches now?
Right now, green light might not be a viable migraine therapy. For now, medications that treat the symptoms of migraines, including pain and nausea, offer some relief.
However, physicians advise that the best option for treating a migraine is preventing one from occurring in the first place. Avoiding triggers, managing stress, and getting enough sleep are just a few of the steps people can take. But doctors advise that no one should suffer from migraines silently.
“People need to understand that there is treatment for acute migraines,” says Bernstein. “If they are impacting your life it is important to see someone who can specifically treat them.”