Migraines and Blue Light – Or Maybe Green Light…

A few years ago, concerns about migraines and blue light was riding a wave of research into everything from computer screens to the sun at the beach. But does blue light actually make migraine pain worse? Is it dangerous? Are some types of light better than others? And where does green fit in?

Emerald City - is green a migraine fighter?

Photo courtesy The Western Sky

New Scientist explains how the results of a study in 2010 were later questioned:

Six years ago, Burstein and his colleagues studied migraine in sufferers who are blind, either due to the loss of an eye or retina, or because of retinal damage. They found that people who had some remaining retinal cells had worse migraines when they were in brightly lit environments, and that blue light seemed to have the strongest impact.

The finding caused a flurry of excitement, and the promotion of sunglasses that filter out blue light. But since then, a special class of cells has been discovered in the retina that process only blue light – and seem to be saved from some types of retina damage that can cause blindness. So there was nothing special about blue light in Burstein’s study – it was just that it was the only type of light his volunteers’ eyes could process.

New Scientist 19 May 2016

Blue light can actually be good – or bad – for migraine patients. As a high-energy visible wave, blue light actually helps with alertness, and can elevate your mood. It helps keep your body keep in rhythm with its environment. All these things are very important for migraine patients.

But as you may have heard, too much blue light at the wrong times can really mess you up – put your rhythm out of whack and even damage your eyes. Hence the concern about “screens”, computer screens and smart phones, especially after dark. This has led to the popularity of blue blocking covers and computer glasses. Many operating systems now have built in options to allow you to “warm” screen colours at sunset (for example, Windows 10 now has “Night Light“, iOS has “Night Shift” … I still like the free f.lux. And don’t forget glasses such as Theraspecs).

But the benefits of these software answers are still in doubt – maybe it’s just better to cut down the screen time!

Cutting out blue light to treat migraine took another hit, a new migraine and colour study was done (with some of the same researchers involved from the 2010 study).

In the new study, published in 2016, blue was not the stand-out light at all. Of four colours (blue, red, amber, and green), blue and red both tended to make migraine pain worse to a similar degree, with amber close behind.

Remember, generally speaking, migraine patients avoid light – the colour may make a difference, but they would simply prefer darkness.

So the surprise is not that these colours bothered the migraine patients. The surprise was that green actually decreased the migraine pain.

Yes, a certain type of green seemed to decrease the pain almost as much as the other colours increased it!

So should we all just wear green glasses?

Not so fast. The green light actually did increase some migraine symptoms similar to the way white light does (throbbing and muscle tenderness). And although green was better than most, migraine pain “spreading” was still reported with the green light.

As with many studies, it’s important that this is another step in our knowledge of migraine, not that it gives us an instant answer, so that we can go out and buy a new product that will solve all our problems.

That being said, if you must have a little light in the room during a migraine attack, try green and see if it’s better.

Also, other studies have indicated the benefits of certain tints for sunglasses and contact lenses.

To read the 2016 study, check out Migraine photophobia originating in cone-driven retinal pathways. Don’t miss the New Scientist article for more on migraines and blue light and green light. You might also enjoy Blue Light: It’s Both Bad And Good For You by Dr. Gary Heiting. For a brief article on the study, see WebMD – Giving the ‘Green Light’ to Migraine Relief.

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5 comments… add one
  • Neil Nov 21, 2017

    Interesting article: I drive trains for London Underground and new speedometers are being introduced in the cabs of the stock I drive and each time I drive in one of these cabs (unless I fully cover up the speedo) I get a painful pressure sensation in and around my eyes, and a headache that lasts all day long. And today I had some stabbing sensations at the back of my head on the left hand side.
    I’ve never had migraines before (except possibly for one brief period c.12 years ago when new office lighting caused me similar effects but more powerful).
    The light emitted from the new speedos is a strong green.
    I need to find more information on this…

  • Linda Dec 28, 2017

    Hi Neil, I read in the research article that only a specific wavelength of green (530 ± 10 nm) can be beneficial, other greens can trigger migraines or even make them worse. The light of your speedometer probably is of a higher nm.
    By the way: I’m a bit surprised the designers of the train didn’t consider using red/amber lights since it preserves the night vision of the driver, which, as I can imagine, is relevant because as a train driver you need to be able to see your environment in case there is something going on on the tracks. This is why jet fighters have red lighting on their panel opposed to commercial airplanes which have white or green lighted instruments; their pilots fly purely on their instruments and don’t need to see the environment.

  • Neil Dec 29, 2017

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks for the thought-provoking reply.
    I’m afraid I don’t know much about this subject, other than a lot of perplexity (and pain) from what I’m starting to experience.
    And as no one at work seems to know anything about it either, it makes me the oddity (employers don’t tend to cater much for oddities). So it raises other concerns about job security…
    I wasn’t part of the selection/assessment process for these new speedometers (our original style have a mix of pale green and orange lighting for target and actual speeds respectively) the new speedos maintain that colour scheme but with much more intensity in the colours (LEDs).
    It was fascinating to read about the instrumentation lighting in jet fighters… the reason we don’t use red lights in train cabs is because red lights for us are danger signals (jet pilots don’t have to worry about stopping at points or various other signals), so it could result in not registering a danger signal if we constantly had that colour in front of us.
    I’m just wondering about the research article you referred to, could you share the title?
    I’ve just read the “Green light found to ease the pain of migraine” article from May 16 that was linked about but the findings reported there state green light actually helps(!), and that doesn’t assist me.
    I’ve also seen a reference to something called ‘Irlen Syndrome’, which might be worth looking into as it may have relevance for me.
    Thank you for the comments.

  • Linda Jan 3, 2018

    Hi Neal,
    thanks for explaining the colour scheme on your panel, it not being red sounds very sensible!
    Considering the true green: at the bottom of this article: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160517083042.htm one of the researchers mentions the ‘pure’ green light (which is 530nm +/-10). As an aside: he says it will be difficult to develop such a light bulb which I find odd since, as far as I know, plenty of LED lamps are available which only emit one pure light waveform .
    Anyway, in your case I can imagine that you would benefit from simply wearing sun glasses since you seem to bothered both by the intensity and the colours of the lights. You could try reddish or brown ones, and see if they help. It may sound strange but workers in the process industry and at nuclear plants sometimes wear them when the lights on their panels are too bright during their night shift (which keep them awake later on when it’s time to sleep).

    I think the Irlen syndrome is congenital, and you would have many other issues and already from birth. I understood from your previous post that your current issues arose when the lights were changed so I think it is a combination of a particular individual sensitivity and circumstances.

    Anyhow, I think your problem is solvable with the right glasses. You shouldn’t loose your job over it!
    You might want to send a message to Toine Schoutens (https://www.linkedin.com/in/toine-schoutens-b48b334/), he is a friendly guy and an expert in the field and I’m sure he is willing to give you some free advice (though he doesn’t mind to sell stuff either;-). By the way: I don’t have any connection with his company).
    Good luck, and keep us posted!

  • Linda Jan 3, 2018

    PS Apologies Neil, for misspelling your name in my previous post.

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