Loud Noises, Bright Lights, and Migraines

A migraines isn't just a headache. Along with the head pain, it also can cause nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound. A loud noise or bright light that wouldn't bother most people can be extremely painful.

Tell your doctor if you're sensitive to light or sound with your migraine. Knowing about these symptoms can help her choose the right way to help you with them.

Sensitivity to Light and Sound

A migraine starts with overactive nerve cells in your brain. These cells send a message that makes some blood vessels wider and releases chemicals that cause the vessel to become inflamed. This leads to the throbbing pain you feel.

Bright lights -- like the glare from a TV screen or the reflection of light off a window -- or loud sounds can trigger that reaction. And once you have the headache, you may be more sensitive to those things as well.

Headaches are just one symptom of the overall migraine condition. Researchers have found that people who get migraines have extra connections in the parts of their brains that process light and sound. Those areas are more active than they are in people who don't get migraines, and that leads to a bigger response.

About 80% of people who get migraine headaches are sensitive to light. That's called photophobia. People who only get the attacks from time to time are less likely to be light sensitive than those who have chronic migraines.

Researchers think photophobia starts in your optic nerve, which carries messages from your eye to your brain. The response can be so extreme that you may need to wear dark sunglasses or lie down in a dark room to feel better.

Being sensitive to loud noises, called phonophobia, often comes along with light sensitivity.

What You Can Do About It

One way to treat migraine pain and other symptoms is with medication. Migraine drugs come in two forms:

  • Preventive agents that are taken on a daily basis to reduce attack frequency.  These include antidepressants, beta-blockers, and anti-seizure drugs can sometimes help stop headaches before they start. You might need to take these every day.
  • Acute therapies, like triptans and ergots, can help with the pain once you have a headache. They also can help with sound and light sensitivity. They work best if you take them as soon as possible after your headache starts.

Continued

You can make a few small changes at home and at work to manage your light and sound triggers.

To manage light sensitivity:

  • Put blinds over your windows to prevent glare from sunlight.
  • Use soft lighting.
  • Don't use fluorescent bulbs, which can flicker. Flickering light can set off migraines in some people.
  • Place lights away from areas where they might reflect and cause glare. Don't aim the light at a mirror, TV, wall, or computer screen.
  • Adjust the brightness and angle of your computer screen to cut down on glare and reflections.
  • Many people with migraines are most sensitive to red and blue light. Special sunglasses can filter these out.

To manage sound sensitivity:

  • Avoid concerts, movies, big parties, or other places you know will be loud.
  • Wear noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
  • Cover your windows with heavy drapes (which will block light, too), and install thick carpet to absorb sounds in your home.
  • Turn on a white noise machine. This gentle sound can drown out louder noises.

You might not want to avoid sound entirely. If you surround yourself with silence, you can become even more sensitive, and that could lead to headaches that are more painful.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lawrence C. Newman, MD on July 19, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: "Photophobia: Looking for Causes and Solutions."

Cleveland Clinic: "Migraine Headaches."

Headache: "Noise as a trigger for headaches: relationship between exposure and sensitivity."

Headache Pain: "Phenotypic features of chronic migraine."

Mayo Clinic: "Migraine symptoms and causes," "Migraine Treatment."

Nature Neuroscience: "A neural mechanism for exacerbation of headache by light."

Neurology: "The anterior insula shows heightened interictal intrinsic connectivity in migraine without aura."

NHS: "Migraine and light sensitivity."

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