Light, Blindness and Migraine Headaches

No one enjoys getting migraines.  The experience is hobbling to say the least and crippling at worst.  Pretty much all you can do is crawl up into your bed, close the shades and shut the lights off and hope like holy hell it’s not going to last long. 

Now, scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), have identified why light makes a migraine more painful after conducting a study between both blind and non-blind migraine sufferers. 

The scientists conducting the study hypothesized that photophobia, or extreme sensitivity to light, occurred because signals transmitted from the retina via the optic nerve were somehow triggering the intensification of pain.

The investigators studied two groups of blind individuals who suffer migraine headaches. Patients in the first group were totally blind due to eye diseases such as retinal cancer and glaucoma; they were unable to see images or to sense light and therefore could not maintain normal sleep-wake cycles. Patients in the second group were legally blind due to retinal degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa; although they were unable to perceive images, they could detect the presence of light and maintain normal sleep-wake cycles.

“While the patients in the first group did not experience any worsening of their headaches from light exposure, the patients in the second group clearly described intensified pain when they were exposed to light, in particular blue or gray wavelengths,” explains Burstein. “This suggested to us that the mechanism of photophobia must involve the optic nerve, because in totally blind individuals, the optic nerve does not carry light signals to the brain.

“We also suspected that a group of recently discovered retinal cells containing melanopsin photoreceptors [which help control biological functions including sleep and wakefulness] is critically involved in this process, because these are the only functioning light receptors left among patients who are legally blind.”

And while this news won’t do anything to cure migraines, it should lead to medicinal developments that makes bright lights tolerable during migraines.

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