Headache or Migraine at Work? Check the Lighting Type

A change in lighting could stop 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 headaches and migraines while at work, you may be able to blame the lighting in your office — certain types of lights that are common in work environments can pose real issues for those of us who suffer from chronic head pain.

Specifically, these potential headache and migraine triggers can trigger headaches and migraines:

  1. glare on computer screens from any overhead lighting
  1. glare from overhead incandescent lighting
  2. flicker from fluorescent lighting

Separately or (worse) combined, these three office lighting problems may lead you to suffer unnecessary head pain. Let's take a look at these three 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 headaches and migraines. Fortunately, there are several approaches you can take to mitigate this hazard:

  • reposition 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 different and more difficult to address. Although generally imperceptible to the human eye, fluorescent lighting has a flicker. 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 (and the one I recommend wholeheartedly) is to remove any fluorescent lights from your immediate work area.

Sit down and discuss the problem with your supervisor or other appropriate person. 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).

Consider Eye Strain, Too

I asked ophthalmologist Scott Strickler, M.D. to, ahem, shed some light on this subject from the angle of eye strain. He explained that incandescent lighting is actually better work lighting. Fluorescent lighting is good to wash a large area in light, but provides very poor task lighting.

Dr. Strickler suggested that workers in offices with fluorescent lighting also need desktop task lighting for working with papers, books, etc. As for problematic fluorescent lighting? "Turn them off or disable the tubes," he told me. "It's so simple that I can't imagine an employer objecting." (I hope he's right in your case!)

Finally, take a good look at your headache and migraine diary to see if you're experiencing more headaches and migraines at work. If that's the case, consider whether the lighting could be a trigger for your head pain.

Sources:

Massiou H. [Prophylactic treatments of migraine]. Revue Neurologique. 2000;156 Suppl 4:4S79-86.

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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