Migraines are severe, recurring headaches that can be debilitating for those who suffer from them. While the exact causes are not fully understood, migraines are often triggered by certain stimuli like light, sound, smells, stress, sleep changes, and hormonal changes. When it comes to light, some colors seem to be more likely to trigger migraines than others.
How light triggers migraines
Photophobia, or sensitivity to light, is one of the most common migraine triggers. Around 80% of migraine sufferers experience light sensitivity during an attack. Exposure to certain wavelengths and intensities of light can trigger the cascade of neurological events that result in a migraine.
The optic nerve carries signals from light detected by the eyes to the brain. In migraine sufferers, this pathway becomes hypersensitive, so light stimuli are perceived as painful. Bright or flickering lights tend to exacerbate this sensitivity. The light signals get amplified in the thalamus region of the brain, which regulates sensory perception. This ramps up activity in the trigeminal nerve network that conveys pain signals. The end result is a throbbing migraine headache.
Why colors matter
Visible light sits on a spectrum of wavelengths from short to long. The wavelength determines the color we perceive. Shorter wavelengths fall in the violet-blue range, while longer wavelengths appear red. Our eyes have receptors that are sensitive to different wavelength ranges.
It seems that light in the shorter wavelength, cooler color spectrum is most likely to trigger migraines. Why is this? Research suggests a few possibilities:
- The cool colored light containing more short wavelengths activates retinal ganglion cells that communicate with the trigeminal nerve. This ramps up pain signaling to the brain.
- Short wavelength light seems to have broader effects in the brain, while long wavelength light is more confined to the visual cortex. This may explain why violet-blue light aggravates migraine pain.
- Melanopsin containing retinal ganglion cells that regulate circadian rhythms are most sensitive to short wavelength blue light. Disruption of normal circadian cycles is a known migraine trigger.
The most problematic wavelength range appears to be in the neighborhood of 480 nanometers, corresponding to blue-violet hues. While individual responses vary, numerous studies have found cool colored light tends to exacerbate migraines more than warm long wavelength light.
Worst colors for migraines
Based on the research, here are some colors in the cool, short wavelength spectrum that are most likely to trigger migraines if you are sensitive to light:
Violet has the shortest visible wavelengths, which have high energy. Bright violet light can overstimulate the retina and optic pathways, leading to migraine activation.
Blue has slightly longer wavelengths than violet, but is still in the peak sensitivity range for melanopsin cell activation and circadian disruption. Prolonged exposure to blue computer and device screens is a common migraine trigger.
Green sits in the middle of the visible color spectrum. It can trigger migraines in some people, though pure green is likely less stimulating than violet-blue hues. Avoid fluorescent green lighting.
Turquoise contains a mix of short wavelength blue and green. The blue component makes turquoise a potential migraine-provoking color, especially at high intensity.
Best colors for avoiding migraines
On the opposite end of the color spectrum, longer wavelength warm colors seem less likely to trigger migraines. Here are some better color choices:
Yellow has longer wavelengths than blue and green in the middle part of the visible spectrum. Pure yellow has not been found to provoke migraines. Avoid extremely bright or fluorescent yellow.
Orange is a mix of red and yellow, shifting further down the wavelength spectrum. Natural orange shades have not been implicated in migraine activation. Again, very intense neon orange may be an exception.
With the longest light wavelengths visible, red sits at the end of the color spectrum. Studies suggest pure red light is less likely to trigger migraines than shorter wavelength colors. However, bright fluorescent reds may still be a problem.
How color intensity affects migraines
The brightness and intensity of a color also plays a role in migraine triggers. Bright, saturated, or fluorescent shades in any hue can overstimulate the visual system. Here are some intensity-related considerations:
- Opt for soft, muted shades over bright, heavily saturated hues
- Darker, deeper tones are gentler than light, bright versions of a color
- Pastels and washed out shades are better than pure, intense colors
- Avoid fluorescent lighting and neon colors
- Use dimmer light sources with adjustable brightness
- Diffuse light through lamp shades and indirect lighting
It’s important to note that color sensitivity can vary significantly among individuals with migraines. For example, red is sometimes cited as a trigger, though this is likely related to intensity. The key is paying attention to how your body responds to different color exposure. Notice when particular colors or lighting conditions tend to precede migraine attacks. Keeping a migraine diary can help identify patterns and your unique triggers.
Tips for minimizing color triggers
Here are some proactive steps you can take to control color exposure in your environment:
- Use cool color temperature, low intensity light bulbs (e.g. 5000K LEDs)
- Install dimmer switches to control brightness
- Avoid overhead fluorescent lights
- Use lamp shades, curtains and blinds to diffuse and block excess light
- Wear sunglasses outdoors, especially polarized lenses
- Use blue light blocking screen filters and reader glasses
- Limit screen time from phones, computers, and TV
- Choose soft neutral wall colors and décor
- Paint walls in warm yellow, peach, tan, or gray tones
- Select carpeting, bedding, and fabrics in muted shades
Treatment options for photophobia
If you suffer from regular light-induced migraines, be sure to discuss your photophobia with your doctor. There are some medical options that can provide relief in addition to lifestyle measures:
- Tinted lenses – Special glasses and contact lenses can filter out problematic wavelengths and intensities to block overly bright light.
- Medications – Some migraine prescription and OTC medications help dampen light sensitivity during an attack. Preventive meds may also reduce frequency.
- Botulinum toxin – Injections of Botox can relax muscles and desensitize nerves involved in photophobia and migraine pain.
- Nerve blocks – Anesthetic nerve blocks and trigger point injections can temporarily reduce nerve pain signaling.
The bottom line
In summary, exposure to certain colors and lighting conditions can trigger migraines, especially in the blue-violet wavelength spectrum. However, the responses are individualized. Keeping a migraine diary, noticing your color and light triggers, and controlling your environment can help reduce frequency and severity of attacks. Be sure to discuss all your migraine treatment options with your healthcare provider.
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Migraine sufferers who experience photophobia should pay close attention to their color environment. Avoiding triggers like bright, cool-toned light when possible can help reduce migraine attacks. With some trial and error, you can learn how to manipulate lighting, color choices, and other environmental factors to prevent debilitating migraine pain.