Migraine attacks — they’re searing, gripping, pulsating, aching, and at times, downright debilitating. But they’re more than just bad headaches. Migraine is a neurological condition that affects roughly 1 out of every 7 people in the United States.
If you’re one of the peeps plagued by these pounders, you know that light can sometimes feel like a dark and evil force meant to unravel you.
For 80 percent of people with migraine, light can make an already-in-session attack worse. Plus, light or glare is to blame for between 30 percent and 60 percent of migraine attacks.
While you might want to make a beeline to a dark room during a migraine attack, that’s not always an option. Many times, you might be stuck in a space surrounded by triggers, like fluorescent lights, device screens, or sunny windows, leaving you searching for other solutions.
Enter migraine glasses. You’ve probably seen ads for these specs pop up online. But can a seemingly simple accessory actually provide relief?
Here, we take a look at how migraine glasses can help with photophobia, the extreme sensitivity to light that people with migraine often face.
Migraine specs are rose-colored glasses (literally!). While the frames come in a variety of shapes and sizes to flatter your face, the lenses on every pair are tinted a special shade of red.
They aren’t meant to make you see the world with a rosier outlook — although they just might if they help reduce your head pain. They’re meant to ease light sensitivity and block out the types of light that trigger migraine attacks.
About 3 decades ago, researchers found that this special rose tint helped lessen the frequency and severity of migraine attacks in kiddos. And so the first therapeutic migraine glasses were born.
Migraine glasses have come a long way from those first pairs in the early ’90s, and by and large, they seem to help with migraine attacks.
They now have what’s called the FL-41 tint or filter. FL-41 stands for Fluorescent 41, the light wavelengths believed to cause trouble for people with migraine.
The glasses still have a rose tint, but the filter has been perfected by Dr. Bradley J. Katz at the University of Utah. It blocks out light “at the green-to-blue end of the spectrum,” according to a 2009 study.
Adding to existing research, Katz studied FL-41 in people who have benign essential blepharospasm, a rare neurological condition that causes muscle spasms in the muscles around the eye (think: eyelid twitching and forced blinking).
He found that the tint improved their condition in relation to light sensitivity, as well.
We all have a little light sensitivity to some degree. It’s what makes us squint when we first go outside on a bright day or flip on the light in the wee hours of the morning.
But for people coping with migraine, a pathway from the eyes to the brain’s thalamus may cause light to trigger a head hurter or worsen symptoms, a Harvard study found in 2016.
So if light is a trigger for your migraine episodes or worsens an attack you’re already dealing with, a pair of FL-41-filtered glasses may be worth a try.
Blue light glasses are not the same as migraine glasses.
These glasses, which block the type of short wavelength blue light that comes from digital screens, are marketed to ease eye strain. They’re also said to reduce the impact our devices might have on our melatonin levels, which can keep us from getting our Zzz’s.
Research so far hasn’t shown that blue-light-blocking glasses are effective for eye discomfort (like the kind you might feel after one too many Zoom meetings).
However, a 2020 study has shown that these lenses may be useful in reducing the number of sheep you need to count before drifting off, especially if you’re a night owl who likes to scroll before you hit the hay. More studies about the effectiveness of blue light glasses are needed, though.
Blue light is certainly a migraine trigger, but so are other types of light, according to the Harvard study. That means blue light glasses probably won’t cut it for people with migraine.
So if you want glasses to help with migraine, look for the FL-41 filter instead, which blocks the specific wavelengths that can trigger attacks.
A quick Google search will bring up tons of stores that sell stylish migraine glasses. Just be sure whatever you’re buying has the FL-41 tint.
Amber-tinted sunglasses may look similar but are definitely not the same thing. You can ask your ophthalmologist or neurologist for a recommendation, if you’re still not sure.
If you already wear prescription lenses, you can order FL-41-tinted prescription lenses from several brands.
Also, some vendors offer FL-41 frames and lenses designed to fit right over your existing prescription glasses. That way you can try out migraine glasses to see if they work for you before fully committing to a brand new pair.
Migraine attacks are the worst. Sometimes all you can do is lie in a dark, quiet room and ride one out.
But a pair of migraine glasses might help you have fewer debilitating days, especially if light is a trigger. At the very least, they might soothe symptoms and help you maintain some function next time a migraine attack hits.