It is no surprise that light can play a major role in how people feel—from triggering or worsening headaches and photophobia to migraine attacks and eye strain. But there is a particularly curious connection between light sensitivity and dizziness. We answer many of the key questions between these two symptoms and take a closer look at how light acts as a trigger for dizziness and vertigo.
What are the causes of light sensitivity and dizziness?
Most often, light sensitivity (also termed photophobia) and dizziness are symptoms of a diagnosed medical condition. Some of the most common disorders include:
- Vestibular Migraine
- Meniere’s Disease
- Post-Concussion Syndrome
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Vertigo / Visual Vertigo
All of these conditions (and more) can result in light sensitivity and dizziness / vertigo. In fact, a core diagnostic measure of vestibular migraine or migraine-associated vertigo is light sensitivity, and as many as 60% of patients with this subtype of the headache disorder complain of it. Similar numbers have also been reported for people with Meniere’s disease, which a disorder of the inner ear. Additionally, those with post-concussion syndrome and TBI frequently cite painful sensitivity to light as the most common side effect of their injury after headache. And dizziness or vertigo may be equally prominent—affecting nearly half of all patients.1-3
Visual vertigo is particularly interesting because—although painful sensitivity to light is not a common feature—light (particularly fluorescents) can bring on vestibular symptoms such as dizziness and motion sensitivity. We will explore more about the problems related to fluorescent lighting below.
Can certain lights trigger dizziness and vertigo?
If light makes you dizzy, you are not alone. The truth is any type of bright light can cause dizzy spells for someone who is light sensitive and/or prone to vertigo. Big box stores can be especially troublesome, mostly due to the prominence of bright fluorescent lighting. Misspellings aside, just take a look at this conversation from an online health forum:
Clearly it is an issue for many patients. But why does it happen?
The answer is not clear cut, but there are some hypotheses that researchers have suggested. One reason might have to do with the intensity of lighting. Bright lights are capable of triggering dizzy spells because those with chronic light sensitivity often have a lower threshold to light in general. This means even moderately bright light can trigger reactions in the eye and brain, thus bringing on symptoms of their condition.
Other studies have shown that the color of light also matters. Blue light is the most likely to trigger photophobia, migraine attacks, and other symptoms of chronic conditions (including vertigo, dizziness and disequilibrium). Plus, these wavelengths are literally everywhere...in fluorescents, device screens, and other forms of artificial light.
An added complication can also be found in many types of fluorescent lighting. Experts have acknowledged that fluorescent lights can make a person feel dizzy due to their inherent flicker rate. This flickering is invisible to the naked eye but still transmitted into the brain, setting off a chain reaction of neurological activity. As a result, those with chronic photophobia can be triggered within just a few minutes of exposure—and thus bring about dizziness, vertigo, lightheadedness, light sensitivity, headaches, migraines, and more. Even if you do not have one of these conditions, it is a primary reason why fluorescents can simply make you feel unpleasant.
Auxiliary factors such as eye strain and/or intense or difficulty focusing can also lead to dizziness in a person who is susceptible. This is frequently reported by those with post-concussion syndrome or traumatic brain injury after looking at their computer or smartphone screens. Because they may have eye-related deficiencies or are unable to concentrate for very long, they can experience these side effects. Furthermore, high contrast lighting, broken or malfunctioning lights, and/or visually "busy" environments can also be disorienting and lead to vertigo and other vestibular issues—notably for those who suffer from visual or motion-sensitive vertigo.
How can you prevent light sensitivity and dizziness?
For treating symptoms of vertigo and dizziness, recommended medications may include:
- meclizine hydrochloride (Antivert)
- scopolamine transdermal patch (Transderm-Scop)
- promethazine hydrochloride (Phenergan)
- metoclopramie (Reglan)
- odansetron (Zofran)
- diazepam (Valium)
- lorazepan (Ativan)
- clonazepam (Klonopin)
Additional over-the-counter antihistamines (such as Benadryl or Dramamine) can reduce the effects of disequilibrium. Anti-migraine medications and other drugs that treat the underlying condition can also minimize bouts of light sensitivity, dizziness and other symptoms. As always, please consult directly with a doctor regarding the appropriate treatment plan for your condition.
Unfortunately, no medications exist for addressing a patient’s sensitivity to light, but that does not mean you are devoid of options. In the case where light exposure directly leads to episodes of dizziness or vertigo, we highly recommend precision-tinted FL-41 glasses. These lenses block the aforementioned blue wavelengths of light that can cause the most problems for those with dizziness; FL-41 lenses also minimize the effects of the invisible fluorescent flicker. Plus they don’t have any of the side effects of medication, making them a safer and natural alternative. Of course, wearing wide-brimmed hats and polarized sunglasses outdoors are also effective at reducing light triggers.
Related articles on vertigo, dizziness and light sensitivity
1 Strupp M, Brandt T. Diagnosis and Treatment of Vertigo and Dizziness. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International. 2008;105(10):173-180. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2008.0173.
2 Lopez-Escamez JA, Dlugaiczyk J, Jacobs J, et al. Accompanying Symptoms Overlap during Attacks in Menière’s Disease and Vestibular Migraine. Frontiers in Neurology. 2014;5:265. doi:10.3389/fneur.2014.00265.
3 Heyer GL, Young JA, Fischer AN. Lightheadedness After Concussion: Not All Dizziness is Vertigo. Clin J Sport Med. 2017 Jul 11. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0000000000000445. [Epub ahead of print]