Anyone that suffers from migraine will sympathise greatly with CJ. Reading her blog really paints a picture of how debilitating this condition is, and also gives an indication of how it can strike out completely unexpectedly.
I am one of the fortunates that is not affected significantly by this (touch wood), the nearest I get to this is a visual migraine where a part of my vision starts flickering and then the vision disappears in that area. Normally this isn’t a great problem, although when I am driving it becomes more significant! However the attack passes after 10 minutes or so, and apart from feeling a bit muzzy that is the end of it.
The Migraine Awareness week at the beginning of September made me think about this problem, and CJ’s recent attack whilst at work really focussed my attention.
Apparently one in seven people in the UK suffers from migraine. I had no idea it was so common. Research shows that the common triggers are not just cheese, caffeine, chocolate and red wine and walnuts, but are more often dehydration, stress and lack of sleep. For most people there is not just one trigger but a combination of factors which individually can be tolerated. It’s when these triggers occur altogether a threshold is passed and a migraine is triggered.
While light sensitivity, or photophobia, is a well-known symptom of migraine many people don’t realise that it can cause it too — in fact research has found that 40 per cent of migraine sufferers believe visual triggers are partly to blame. This can be bright light, either indoors or outside, or flickering light, from fluorescents lights and computer and television screens. Car headlights and reflected glare off whitewashed walls or water are also recognised as a potential trigger.
Professor Bruce Evans, Director of Research at the Institute of Optometry in London says that the precise visual trigger varies with the individual but essentially it comes down to repetition and high contrast.
For instance, some people develop migraines from seeing black words on a white background, or a pattern such as stripes on a shirt or the lines on an escalator.
Alternatively, they can be caused by a repetitive action, such as light flickering through trees or even a computer screen (many screens flicker and although this may not be obvious, the movement can be detected by the brain).
‘Basically, the visual part of the brain gets overexcited by this,’ says Professor Evans.
As the migraine takes hold, the brain partly shuts down, or becomes less active, causing symptoms such as confusion, problems finding the right words and fatigue,’ he says.
‘The aura that accompanies some migraines — symptoms such as flashing lights, blind spots and difficulty seeing — is essentially this shutting down process spreading across the surface of the brain.
There is now a lot of research into the link between light and migraines, and certainly the results are quite encouraging. Some sufferers of migraines are especially sensitive to different parts of the light spectrum, so having specifically coloured lenses can sometimes be very beneficial.
This is the part of the research that I find particularly interesting, as my work in the psychology of colour and colour preferences in dyslexia has some strong links to the enhanced sensitivity of some migraine sufferers.
Coloured lenses seem to effectively damp down the effects of lights or patterns that trigger visual migraine. One theory is that using colour redistributes the excitement in the brain that occurs in a response to something such as stripes, which reduces the hyperactivity in the brain.
Finding out which colour is going to be most effective is the most important part, afterall everyone is different. Colorimetry, the science of how the brain perceives colour, is already being used to help people with epilepsy and dyslexia, and now there seems to be evidence that it can be very useful for suffers of migraines. In a recent study by the University of Michigan, brain scans showed that 70 per cent of participants reported considerable relief when using tinted lenses, which I find very significant.
It seems brain cells in the area controlling vision respond better to different colours depending on the individual, which means it’s a case of finding the right colour that works best.
There are a number of screening systems such as The ReadEZ Screening System used to detect colour preferences in dyslexics, and these seem to work well for the assessment of migraine sufferers.
However, some experts are not convinced tinted lenses are the answer for everyone.
Tinted lenses may be one thing to try but what can also help is drinking plenty of water — up to three litres a day — eating regular meals and adhering to regular sleep patterns,’ says Consultant Neurologist Nick Silver, who runs a clinic for severe and refractory headache disorders at The Walton Centre in Cheshire.
Other tips for managing the condition are through making small changes at home and at work, such as ensuring that lighting is adequate and well positioned. Fluorescent lighting particularly should be properly maintained to minimise flicker, and should imitate natural daylight as much as possible. Avoiding reflected glare from shiny/polished surfaces, plain white walls etc can be very helpful, opt for matt finishes where possible and break up surfaces with pictures, posters or plants. Fitting blinds to windows can be an easy way to reduce glare.
The increasing use of computers has been found to cause problems for many migraine sufferers and there are some things that have been found to make a difference. If you adjust and maintain your computer screens to reduce or eliminate flicker or glare it will help, and keep screensavers etc neutral. Positioning the computer screen to avoid reflection from windows will improve matters, as will ensuring that your seating and body posture is correct. Have your eyes tested regularly and make sure that they are relaxed whilst using the screen. Ensure that your glasses are up to date (if you wear them) and that you are using the right type of lens, don’t just increase the font!! By setting the brightness down to the minimum legible level you will reduce the visual stress from the screen. And always be particularly aware of the blue light issue from screens and pads.
One other aspect of modern life that is often overlooked: The phasing out of the energy eating traditional incandescent light bulbs and their replacement with modern energy saving lights has put a lot more blue light into both the work and home environment. The new energy saving bulbs are in reality Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs have a tendency to flicker and they radiate a different light spectrum. While this flickering may not be noticeable to the naked eye, to some sufferers of migraine it is a well documented problem and can be a trigger for an attack. No statistically significant surveys have been done, and the environmental argument is overwhelming, but there are a number of anecdotal reports around, so there is definitely some food for thought and a need for awareness.
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