When you go outside, even with protective sunglasses, do you find the brightness brings on head pain or otherwise makes you feel bad? Do your eyes feel sensitive to the light, causing you to squint or turn away? The fact is: if bright sunlight gives you a headache, you may actually be experiencing a light-sensitive migraine attack.
Many people associate migraine with being just a headache, but in fact migraine is a neurological condition that is often characterized by numerous symptoms beyond head pain—this might include light sensitivity, nausea, visual dysfunction or aura, and more. Amazingly, sunlight is also constantly reported as a trigger for migraine—so you are not alone if it causes a headache for you. In fact, as many as 67% of people with migraines cite bright light (sunlight included) as a trigger, according to a recent survey. Some experts have even pegged light as a more prominent trigger than diet or hormonal changes.1 And the effect can be immediate: research has shown that it can take as little as 5 to 10 minutes of being out in the sun to lead to a headache or migraine attack for those who are sensitive.
But why does sunlight trigger headaches and migraine attacks?
There are 4 main reasons, which we discuss in detail below:
- Reduced tolerance for light
- Greater sunlight sensitivity between attacks
- Longer duration of sun exposure
- Exposure to specific wavelengths emitted by sun
People prone to light-induced migraine episodes generally have a lower threshold for light. In fact, the light of an overcast and cloudy day can be enough to cause pain! Thus, even normal levels of light exposure—much less bright days—can lead to headaches and other migraine symptoms.2
The tolerance for light can also be lower between attacks making people more sensitive even when they are not in pain. This means a person may not immediately have a headache while outside, but it may be building. And if you just came out of an attack, you may find that your symptoms linger as a result of sun exposure.
If you don’t have an immediate headache or migraine from the sun, experts have further suggested that the cumulative effect of sunlight exposure over time can be just as damaging. Ultimately, the longer you stay outside, the more likely you may develop a headache.3
Lastly, the sun emits a spectrum of light wavelengths, one of the strongest of these being high energy visible light or what most people label blue light. In fact, blue light is everywhere—fluorescents, device screens, and other artificial sources as well. And blue light has been repeatedly identified as the most painful color of light for people with migraine.4 Thus, the combined effect of sun brightness and these painful wavelengths can be a dynamic duo of unpleasantness.
Remedies for Headaches Due to Sun Exposure
Wear polarized sunglasses
You never want to step out unprotected if sunlight is painful. Protect your eyes with polarized sunglasses. The polarization minimizes the amount of glare and reflection that enters the eyes. It also makes the lenses inherently darker—both of which can reduce migraine attacks and headaches. Bonus tip: Find a frame that has a wraparound protection and can block peripheral light from sneaking in and causing you pain.
Try TheraSpecs outdoor sunglasses
If a quality pair of polarized sunglasses are not enough, exposure to the blue light of the sun may be the culprit. To combat it, you can purchase a pair of tinted TheraSpecs FL-41 sunglasses. These not only remove a high proportion of all light like normal sunglasses, but they also remove the most painful wavelengths. TheraSpecs frame styles also add many protective features, making them a great remedy for headaches that result from too much sun exposure.
Avoid peak sunlight hours
It’s not surprising that migraine-related sunlight sensitivity may be more prominent during summer months.5 It may be prudent to make plans for indoor activities or at least adjust them to take place during early morning or late afternoon hours to avoid peak brightness levels.
Make sure heat exhaustion or something more serious is not causing your head pain. As dehydration is also cited as a common migraine trigger, you want to drink plenty of water especially if you are outside for an extended period of time. It might also be worth investing in ice packs or cooling vests to regulate your body temperature during hotter periods. While they won't remove the sensitivity to sunlight, these simple tips will keep it from getting worse.
Avoid other known triggers
If you know exercise or certain foods are also triggers, you will want to steer clear of them while you're outside as these could just enhance your likelihood of a headache or migraine attack.
Take your migraine medication
Numerous studies have shown that treating the underlying condition will help alleviate many of the corresponding symptoms. Taking your migraine medication, especially in the early stages of an attack, can often keep the sunlight, your headaches and other issues at bay.
1Vijayan, N., Gould, S. and Watson, C. (1980), Exposure to Sun and Precipitation of Migraine. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 20: 42–43. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1980.hed2001042.x
2Vanagaite J, Pareja JA, Støren O, White LR, Sand T, Stovner LJ. Light-induced discomfort and pain in migraine. Cephalalgia. 1997 Nov;17(7):733-41.
3Hoffmann J, Recober A. Migraine and triggers: Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Current pain and headache reports. 2013;17(10):10.1007/s11916-013-0370-7. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0370-7.
4Main A, Vlachonikolis I, Dowson A. The wavelength of light causing photophobia in migraine and tension-type headache between attacks. Headache. 2000 Mar;40(3):194-9.
5Bekkelund SI, Hindberg K, Bashari H, Godtliebsen F, Alstadhaug KB. Sun-induced migraine attacks in an Arctic population. Cephalalgia. 2011 Jul;31(9):992-8. doi: 10.1177/0333102411409071. Epub 2011 May 31.