ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects millions of children and often continues into adulthood. It’s a combination of persistent problems such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. In this post, we explore how ADHD symptoms are also accompanied by hypersensitivity and sensory processing issues, which can include strong sensitivity to light and other external stimuli.
ADHD and Sensory Processing
People with ADHD often display a strong aversion or reaction to various things, which can stem from an inherent personality characteristic ("hypersensitivity") or neurological disorder ("sensory processing disorder"). Although researchers have hypothesized that perhaps as much as 20% of the general population show traits of high sensitivity, ADHD individuals are at an even great risk, according to multiple clinical studies.1,2
ADHD Hypersensitivity, Sensory Processing Sensitivity & “Highly Sensitive” Persons
An individual with ADHD hypersensitivity may also be called a highly sensitive person (HSP) and is thought to process certain emotional and/or physical stimuli more intensely or thoroughly than others; they also tend to notice more aspects of their environment. As a result, this can lead to overstimulation and other ADHD symptoms.3
Specifically, people with ADHD hypersensitivity can exhibit any of the following issues:
- Extreme sensitivity to emotional or physical stimuli, including sound, sight, touch or smell
- Higher likelihood of asthma, eczema or allergies
- Tendency to become easily overwhelmed by too much information
This has also been called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS)—not to be confused with sensory processing disorder, which we describe below.
ADHD & Sensory Processing Disorders
Similarly, sensory processing disorder is a biological explanation for these deficits and has been applied to a high percentage of ADHD patients—between 40-84% according to some researchers.4 Contrary to HSP or SPS, sensory processing disorder is a neurological condition that describes the brain’s incorrect processing of external "information" (e.g. light, sound). This then results in overstimulation, distress or even physiological symptoms. For instance, extended fluorescent light exposure could manifest as painful photophobia.
ADHD and Light Sensitivity, Photophobia
Not surprisingly, this extreme sensitivity displayed by ADHD patients often manifests with eye-related symptoms: reduced visual sharpness, myopia, impaired depth and color perception, among others. In addition, persons with ADHD also report strong sensitivity to bright light, known as photophobia. In fact, a 2014 study found that nearly 70% of individuals self-identified as photophobic—more than twice the number of people without ADHD symptoms.5
Those with ADHD who were also light-sensitive reported several related complications from light exposure too, such as:
- eye pain
- migraine attacks
- dry eyes
- chronic fatigue
They also wore sunglasses more frequently throughout the year, including indoors and on cloudy days.5 This is not an uncommon practice among light-sensitive persons as they try to block all light from causing them pain—but keep in mind that wearing dark eyewear inside on a regular basis can just make things worse. (If you are concerned, we encourage you to read more about dark adaption and what you can do about it here)
ADHD and Fluorescent Lights
Similar to those with autism and light sensitivity, fluorescent lighting—which is generally problematic for most people with light sensitivity—can be particularly harmful for those with ADHD.
Although any type of light can trigger symptoms of ADHD, fluorescents have a trifecta of brightness, invisible flicker and high concentration of blue light that makes them so damaging. And these issues are often made worse for those with known ADHD-related sensory processing disorders or hypersensitivity.
More research is needed in this area, but a small 1976 study did show that classrooms with unshielded fluorescent lighting led to an increase in hyperactive behaviors (fidgeting, lack of attention) among ADHD children.6 Plus, there are countless patient anecdotes that describe similar phenomenon:
- "I do get this hazy disoriented feeling (‘fish bowl head’)..." (source: medhelp.org)
- "Throughout high school I was plagued by brain fog caused by fluorescent lights. Thinking back...I got poor marks in classes that had only fluorescent lights." (source: medhelp.org)
- "I have a problem. Fluorescent bulbs make my ADHD worse. I'm constantly distracted by their buzzing and flickering…" (source: Reddit)
Possible Explanations for ADHD-Related Light Sensitivity
A few theories have emerged that link ADHD, hypersensitivity and photophobia.
The first concerns the systems in the eye and brain that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine and melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Both are more likely to be inhibited in individuals with ADHD and hypersensitivity, and they may be further disrupted upon exposure to light.6
Additionally, people with the developmental disorder have more difficulties in processing blue light wavelengths—which is known to activate specific cells in the eye, cause episodes of photophobia, and may also signal disrupted sleep patterns and circadian rhythms that are frequent in ADHD persons.7
Related studies also indicate a likelihood that people with ADHD might have comorbid migraine and/or anxiety disorders, both of which are independently characterized by heightened sensitivity to light.8-10 Even worse,there is evidence that ADHD medications, such as methylphenidate (e.g. Ritalin), have been linked to photophobia as a possible side effect.11
So what can you do to reduce ADHD light sensitivity? Check out home remedies that might help by clicking the button below!
1Panagiotidi M, Overton PG, Stafford T. The relationship between ADHD traits and sensory sensitivity in the general population. Compr Psychiatry. 2018 Jan;80:179-185. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.10.008. Epub 2017 Oct 25.
2Pfeiffer B, Daly BP, Nicholls EG, Gullo DF. Assessing sensory processing problems in children with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Phys Occup Ther Pediatr. 2015 Feb;35(1):1-12. doi: 10.3109/01942638.2014.904471. Epub 2014 Apr 8.
3Listou Grimen H, Diseth Å. Sensory Processing Sensitivity: Factors of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale and Their relationships to Personality and Subjective Health Complaints. Percept Mot Skills. 2016 Dec;123(3):637-653. Epub 2016 Aug 25.
4Koziol LF, Budding D. ADHD and sensory processing disorders: placing the diagnostic issues in context. Appl Neuropsychol Child. 2012;1(2):137-44. doi: 10.1080/21622965.2012.709422. Epub 2012 Aug 3.
5Kooij JJ, Bijlenga D. High prevalence of self-reported photophobia in adult ADHD. Front Neurol. 2014 Dec 10;5:256. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2014.00256. eCollection 2014.
6N. Ott, John. (1976). Influence of Fluorescent Lights on Hyperactivity and Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities - J LEARN DISABIL. 9. 417-422. 10.1177/002221947600900704.
7Kim S, Chen S, Tannock R. Visual function and color vision in adults with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. J Optom. 2014 Jan-Mar;7(1):22-36. doi: 10.1016/j.optom.2013.07.001. Epub 2013 Aug 16.
8Salem H, Vivas D, Cao F, Kazimi IF, Teixeira AL, Zeni CP. ADHD is associated with migraine: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018 Mar;27(3):267-277. doi: 10.1007/s00787-017-1045-4. Epub 2017 Sep 13.
9Fasmer OB, Halmøy A, Oedegaard KJ, Haavik J. Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with migraine headaches. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2011 Dec;261(8):595-602. doi: 10.1007/s00406-011-0203-9. Epub 2011 Mar 11.
10Reimherr FW, Marchant BK, Gift TE, Steans TA. ADHD and Anxiety: Clinical Significance and Treatment Implications. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Nov 20;19(12):109. doi: 10.1007/s11920-017-0859-6.
11Ghanizadeh A1, Aghakhani K. Photophobia and methylphenidate. Psychopharmacol Bull. 2008;41(1):171-3.