Frequent Migraines at Work? Check Your Office Lighting

A change in lighting could ease your head pain

Using a desk lamp at the office can help prevent headaches.
Using a desk lamp at the office can help prevent headaches. Westend61/Getty Images

If you find that you have more migraines while at work, you may be able to blame the lighting in your office.

Why? Experts are not completely sure but research shows that people with migraines have a greater activation of certain areas of their brain (like their visual cortex) in response to visual stimulation.

In other words, migraineurs seem to be more sensitive to light, especially bright light (for example, sunlight), flickering light, high-wavelength light (red) and low-wavelength light (blue).

In terms of work-related light trigger, there are three main sources:

  • The glare on computer screens from any overhead lighting
  • The glare from overhead incandescent lighting
  • The flicker from fluorescent lighting

Separately or (worse) combined, these three office lighting problems may lead you to endure unnecessary head pain.

Let's take a look at these three lighting issues and the possible solutions for them.

Computer Screen Glare Can Trigger Attacks

Glare on a computer screen from overhead lighting may seem innocuous (you may not even notice it), but it still can serve as a potent trigger of migraines.

Fortunately, there are several approaches you can take to mitigate this hazard:

  • Try repositioning the monitor so the light hits it more indirectly
  • Attach a glare screen to your monitor
  • Put a hood over your monitor to keep light from hitting it from above and from the sides
  • Turn off the lights over your work area (this will depend on how your office lighting switches are set up)

    If other methods haven't worked, and you can't turn off only the lights in your own work area, talk to your supervisor or the maintenance staff about having the light bulbs or tubes in your work area removed or deactivated.

    How to Solve Overhead Incandescent Lighting Glare

    Glare from incandescent light bulbs in your workspace can represent just as much of a problem as glare on your computer screen from overhead lighting.

    This can often be handled by these strategies:

    • Repositioning yourself to sit at different angles from the light
    • Covering any bare incandescent bulbs with a cloth or glass shade, which can be enough to eliminate the problem (frosted or opaque shades will help more than clear shades, so ask your employer for one of those)
    • Turning off the lights over your work area or asking to have the bulbs removed

    Fluorescent Lights: A Trickier Problem

    Unfortunately, the problem with fluorescent lighting is unique and more difficult to address. Although generally imperceptible to the human eye, fluorescent lighting has a flicker, and it's the flicker itself that's actually a migraine trigger.

    Therefore, it doesn't matter what kind of fixture houses the tubes, since people who are sensitive to that flicker will have a problem with it even when it's covered with something frosted. The best solution is to remove any fluorescent lights from your immediate work area—of course, this can be a challenging prospect.

    It may be a good idea to sit down and discuss the problem with your supervisor or another appropriate person in your work space. If whoever is in charge of maintenance has a problem with leaving a fixture empty, suggest that they simply replace the tubes in your work area with burned out tubes (this may sound pretty funny, but it actually can work).

    Then, instead of using fluorescent lighting, use a desktop lamp for working at your computer or on papers. In fact, a desktop light is better for working in a small area. This is because fluorescent lighting is not only a potential migraine trigger, but it provides very poor task lighting and can cause eye strain, which can also trigger headaches—a double whammy, so to speak.

    A Word From Verywell

    All in all, it's worthwhile to take a good look at your migraine diary to see if you're experiencing more migraines at work. If that's the case, consider whether the lighting could be a trigger for your head pain.

    Of course, there are other potential work-related headache and migraine triggers, as well, like skipping meals, sleep deprivation, stress—and it's more likely that a combination of these factors (rather than just one) that is the culprit behind your head pain.

    Sources:

    Hoffman J, Recober A. Migraine and triggers: Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013 Oct;17(10):10.

    Schwedt TJ. Multisensory integration in migraine. Curr Opin Neurol. 2013 Jun;26(3):248-53.

    Wilkins A et al. Prevention of Visual Stress and Migraine With Precision Spectral Filters. Drug Development Research. 2007;68(7):469-475.

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