For many migraine sufferers, light and other visual stimuli can precipitate (or worsen) headaches. The specific visual trigger varies from person to person—it may be a bright spotlight, for example, or light flickering from fluorescent bulbs or even through trees while traveling past them. Or the “visual stress” can be caused by looking at various light patterns, such as black lines against a white or lighter background. This is called pattern glare.
In short, people with migraines are often hypersensitive to visual stimuli, as suggested by increased activity in the visual cortex of the brain, which may cause neurons to misfire. Even blind people can be affected, indicating that the neural pathway involved is not necessarily the one that forms images.
You might think, then, that wearing sunglasses would help—and some migraine sufferers do get some relief. Better yet, possibly, would be eyeglasses tinted to block certain wavelengths of light to help “normalize” brain activity. When customized in this way, they are called precision-tinted eyewear.
Tinted lenses: not a new idea
Interest in tinted lenses for migraines and other light-sensitive conditions dates back two decades, though there are only a handful of published studies. In a small study of children published in the journal Headache in 1991, wearing glasses with a rose tint for four months significantly reduced migraine frequency (from 6.2 to 1.6 episodes a month), while blue-tinted lenses had no long-lasting benefit. Among a series of published studies by British researchers, one in Cephalalgia in2002 found that adults had fewer migraines when they wore lenses with a customized “optimal” tint over a six-week period, compared to when they wore lenses with a suboptimal tint. And an NIH-funded study in 2011, also in Cephalalgia, found that migraine sufferers who looked at certain patterns (such as high-contrast colors or stripes) had reduced “hyperexcitability” in the brain’s visual area—as assessed by a special MRI—when they wore tinted glasses, especially precision tinted ones. They reported decreased visual stress as well, though the study did not evaluate actual headaches.
Tinted lenses are also being studied and used for a variety of other conditions that have a visual stress component, including photosensitive epilepsy, blepharospasm (uncontrolled muscle contractions of the eyelids), various reading problems, and even motion sickness.
Experiment with sunglasses?
More research is needed to confirm the benefits of tinted lenses in preventing or reducing migraines, but if you suffer from headaches related to visual stimuli (or other light sensitivity issues), there’s no harm in trying them to see if they can help prevent attacks. An eye care specialist may be able to determine if you have visual triggers that you are unaware of and suggest lenses that may help. The simplest option is to experiment with sunglasses of different hues that are light enough to allow you to see well indoors. Many people find that rose tints work best. The glasses can be worn in situations where an attack may be triggered, orduring a headache episode to reduce its severity.
Keep in mind that no single intervention works for all migraine sufferers. How much you benefit may depend on many factors, including your particular triggers, along with the color and quality of the lenses. In some cases, wearing the “wrong” tint might worsen symptoms.
Ready to Wear or Custom?
If you're considering purchasing tinted lenses, think about whether you'd prefer ready-to-wear or custom items. Here's the rundown on both.