Shedding Light on Migraines

If you’ve ever experienced a throbbing migraine headache then most likely you know that the best way to combat the headache is to close your eyes and shut off all the lights. Light sensitivity can make a migraine worse, and new research sheds some light on why. A recent study of blind people has given scientists important clues about why migraine sufferers are so sensitive to brightness. The study’s authors hope that the findings will lay a foundation for new research on how to block the mechanism for light sensitivity, or photophobia, which affects up to 85 percent of migraine patients.

While the exact cause of migraines remains a mystery, they are thought to occur when blood vessels around the brain become quickly dilated and then inflamed. The resulting pain can be debilitating, often leading to fatigue or vomiting. If untreated, symptoms can last for hours or even days. Lying down in a dark room can provide some relief, however.

After learning that even blind migraine sufferers were sensitive to light, a group of Harvard researchers decided to investigate further. Dr. Rami Burstein led the study, which included two groups of migraine sufferers who were blind. In one group, the patients were completely blind and unable to sense light at all. In the second group, patients were legally blind, but still able to detect light. Only the patients in the second group reported intensified headache pain when exposed to light.

The results indicate that light sensitivity involves the optic nerve, because completely blind individuals’ optic nerves do not transmit light signals to their brains. The legally blind patients, however, still have the retinal cells that act as light receptors. These cells then activate a group of neurons to trigger a migraine. This pathway provides insight into why those neurons stay active for awhile after headache sufferers are exposed to light. Once a patient is in the dark, however, the headache usually improves after about 30 minutes.

About 30 million Americans are affected by migraine headaches. If you or a loved one experiences this disabling condition, it’s important to understand what triggers them. Besides bright light, some common triggers include menstrual cycles, humidity, strong smells, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol. By keeping a headache journal, you can reduce the number and frequency of episodes.  A life without headache pain is possible.

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