Light: A Therapy (and Trigger) for Migraines

While some light can worsen episodes, green light may ease them

The relationship between light and migraines is complicated. Bright lights can exacerbate migraine attacks, and aversion to light is very common during a migraine episode. Evidence suggests that different colored lights affect migraines differently. And in some cases, as with light therapy, the effect may actually be beneficial.

A strategy used for alleviating seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and sleep problems, light therapy is a safe and inexpensive approach that can be combined with other lifestyle habits and medical treatments to soothe migraines as well.

Understanding the differences between colored light rays and their effect on migraines could be the key to unraveling how light therapy may work in alleviating this condition.

Light Sensitivity and Migraines

Photophobia, which is increased sensitivity to or aversion to light, affects most migraineurs. When you have a migraine, you may feel that lights are brighter than they really are. Bright light can feel like it hurts your eyes, and you might instinctively squint, put sunglasses on, or put your hand above your eyes to create shade.

While it is generally not as debilitating as the actual migraine pain, photophobia can limit your ability to function and interact with others. If you experience this symptom, you may have noticed that you seek out comfort in the dark until your migraine is relieved.

Often, exposure to bright light during a migraine attack can worsen the migraine itself. Researchers believe that receptors on the retina of the eye (called photoreceptors) detect light and transmit signals to the cerebral cortex of the brain, where migraine pain is perceived.

how light rays affect migraine pain

Verywell / Emily Roberts

The Differing Effects of Light Rays

Light rays are seen as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. When these rays are all combined (as in sunlight), they make white light. Two colors in particular—blue and green—are of special interest when it comes to migraine prevention and treatment.

Blue Light

Blue light has a shorter wavelength and more energy than other rays of light. It often is a large component of white light.

Sources of blue light include sunlight, cell phones, computer monitors, tablet screens, flat screen LED televisions, LED lights, and compact fluorescent light bulbs. In other words, blue light is everywhere.

Photoreceptors are most sensitive to blue light, which is why scientists believe blue light exposure can worsen migraine pain.

This is just one of the possible triggers behind your migraines, of course, but it is often a reason why some migraineurs experience episodes in a work setting where they stare at screens all day.

Green Light

Green light does not activate retinal pathways as much as blue or other light rays, so it is less likely to induce a migraine. Furthermore, you are less likely to experience aversion or sensitivity to green light during a migraine attack.

One 2018 study found that white, blue, amber, and red lights exacerbated headaches in 80% of the participants, while green light exacerbated headaches among 40%. And while other colors of light triggered headaches in 18% of participants, green light triggered headaches in 3%.

Another study published in 2016 found that exposure to green light significantly decreased light sensitivity in a small group of migraineurs. Of the participants, almost 80% reported more intense headaches with colored light exposure—all except green. In fact, about 20% experienced a decreased headache intensity with green light exposure.

If you are considering light therapy for migraines, seasonal affective disorder, or another condition, it is helpful to know that green light is the least likely color to worsen or cause migraine pain, and may even soothe migraine pain.

Using Light Therapy

Green light therapy can be used at home to ease symptoms during a migraine attack or as a form of preventative care. Special LED "migraine lamps" emit a narrow band of green light that activates regions of the brain involved in pain processing less than other colors. By using green light rather than conventional lighting, migraineurs can alleviate symptoms without hindering their daily activities.

More research is needed to determine the best way to use light therapy to prevent migraines, though the effect of regular treatment is promising. In one 2020 study, migraine patients basked in green light for one to two hours daily while exercising, working, performing chores, and other activities. After 10 weeks of green light therapy, patients reported a significant decrease in the intensity and frequency of migraine episode.

A Word From Verywell

Lifestyle strategies for managing your migraines—in this case, avoiding or getting more of certain kinds of light—can be useful approaches that improve your quality of life. While light therapy may complement traditional migraine therapies, larger studies are needed, especially ones that utilize devices that either specifically emit green light and/or block blue light. That said, light therapy is inexpensive and simple, so you may want to consider giving it a try.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.