Up to 90% of migraineurs are sensitive to light, either before, during, or after a migraine attack. That light sensitivity can be enough to trigger a migraine, and most digital media is light-based. So it makes sense that the use of digital devices and consuming digital media could trigger migraines in susceptible people.
The problem is that we are surrounded by digital media, from the phones in our hands to the huge television screens in our living rooms. Every workplace has a computer in it, and more work than ever is performed using a tablet.
Let’s face it. You’re surrounded. However, there are ways to minimize the problem and reduce the risk of triggering migraines while still enjoying your electronically-based lifestyle. Digital devices can cause headaches and migraines in multiple ways. Still, there are steps you can take to avoid the "computer headache.”
A Little About Light
Light triggers migraines in different ways. For some people, the brightness of the light is the problem. For others, flickering lights trigger migraines or headaches. Blue light is a relatively new phenomenon that emanates from digital screens.
Light sensitivity is the second most common symptom reported after head pain for migraine. With nearly every person who suffers from migraines experiencing problems with light in various ways, it’s no wonder the world around you has become more challenging to navigate. Research shows that nearly one-third of sufferers are triggered by light, while others remain sensitive to it during their migraine and afterward.
Blue light, in particular, has become the bane of existence for migraineurs. Blue light is nothing more than light that comes from the short end of the visible spectrum, just above ultraviolet. If you remember any high school physics, you will understand that light made up of short waves is high energy light. The shorter the wave, the higher the frequency and energy it contains.
Blue light comes from both natural and artificial sources. Blue light is part of the spectrum of sunlight, it's just that blue light is covered over by red and yellow light that is scattered in the atmosphere. Artificial sources include not only cell phones and other digital screens but LED lamps and television as well.
Not Just the Devices
It isn’t just the light released from your device that can trigger a migraine. It may be caused by something you are watching or reading. Videos are immensely popular but can consist of visual stimuli that set off something in the brain, creating the environment for a migraine.
You may have seen videos with flickering colors or lights. Many banner ads on your computer screen jiggle for your attention or flash on and off. A current meme entices you to stare into a hypnotic wheel that causes an afterimage for a few minutes afterward.
Problems Beyond Migraine
Smartphones and computers can cause other issues besides triggering migraines. Eye strain is common among computer and smartphone users. The bright light of a digital device can cause sleep disruptions, while the use of the device can invite poor posture.
And then there are the sudden noises that occur when audio automatically plays. Don't you hate that?
Finally, Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) is a condition identified in the late 1990s. Long days in front of the computer were causing a litany of symptoms from blurry and dry eyes, stiff necks and shoulders, and stress. What can stress cause? That’s right, migraines.
Issues with Your Cell Phone
Cell phones, particularly smartphones, cause all of these issues but with a small twist.
- Smaller screens cause more eye strain.
- As more applications become available for smartphones, you spend more time staring at it.
- Research in Zurich has found that blood flow increases in the area of the brain nearest the mobile phone. Higher blood flow and pressure can translate into a migraine attack.
For most people, their cell phone is seldom more than a foot away. They look at them while eating, working, and even walking or driving (which is illegal in some areas).
How can you get your work done and enjoy binge-watching Disney or Netflix if the media is going to cause a headache?
Avoiding Digital Media Migraines
There is a way around the problem. It takes a few minor adjustments and a change in habits (which isn’t always a minor undertaking).
- Balance the brightness of your screen with the surrounding light. Learn how to adjust the brightness of the screens you use. The screen should blend in with the light around the screen. Extremely bright displays cause too much contrast for your eyes.
- Adjust the monitor refresh rate to limit flickering. The refresh rate is how many times per second the screen renews the image. Low rates create flickering, even though you may not see it. Set the refresh rate as high as possible to limit the problem.
- Increase the font size. Straining your eyes by trying to read typeface that is too small is another route to migraines. Unlike print materials, you can control this.
- Stage your workspace to enhance comfort and reduce strain. Place the monitor directly in front of you and adjust the chair so you can look straight forward at the screen without slouching. Set it up about 20 to 40 inches away, and get rid of any glare.
- Listen to your mother - sit up straight! Sit upright and comfortably. Check your neck and shoulders throughout the day to reduce slouching.
- Install a screen filter or invest in computer glasses that block blue light.
Be kind to your body. It’s way too easy to discover you have been sitting in front of your computer or hunched over your smartphone for hours. Take frequent breaks. Stand up and move around. Use the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to combat eye strain.
Get a regular eye exam. Your eyes change throughout your life. As you get to a certain age, presbyopia sets in. You may need bifocals now. However, they are available without lines and can be graduated to work better with screens.
One last thing: keep your screens clean. Dust, skin oil, grease, and dirt can dim the view. You may not even be aware of it. Use a micro cloth to wipe dust and dirt away, and get rid of smudges. You might be surprised by how brilliant the colors become.
Is digital media a new trigger for migraines? It can be. It’s new in the sense that less than 30 years ago, the only screen most of us looked at was a television. We certainly didn’t stare at one all day and evening.
Make it a habit to notice how long you spend with your electronic devices. Give yourself frequent breaks, and adjust the brightness and refresh rate. If a migraine attacks, use your go-to relief strategy. As always, you can contact Migraine Relief Center with any concerns.