Virtual-Everything Making Your Migraines Worse?
This #quarantinelife means more screen time than normal—and when you’re living with chronic migraines, that’s the last thing you need.
Even in normal times, technology can suck us in—a 2018 Nielsen report found that U.S. adults spend 10.5 hours per day connected to media. And now that we’re living though a global pandemic, screens have become a main source of connection between non-essential workers and the outside world. According to an April 2020 survey from Global Web Index, 87% of U.S. consumers say they’re engaging with even more online media since the pandemic began.
Between work hours and happy hours, virtual engagements are a lifeline right now. This is better news for some people than others. If you deal with migraines triggered by bright light, you may find it harder than usual to escape the pull of screens and find relief. “Now that I don't have transit time or in-person meetings, that time is replaced by more work screen time,” says Grace Gold, a 37-year-old journalist in New York, NY who lives with migraines. “I've noticed an increase in headaches, which can lead to a migraine if you don't stop the cascade.”
She’s not the only one who feels this way. “Eye strain is a very common [migraine] trigger, particularly because screens are bright,” explains Robert Cowan, M.D., director of the Stanford Headache Clinic and chief of the Division of Headache Medicine at Stanford University in Stanford, CA. “A lot of people are sensitive to bright light even between headaches.”
That’s not to say your migraines will definitely get worse as your screen time goes up. “Migraine is very different for a given individual,” Dr. Cowan says, and what triggers one person may not bother the next. But if screen time tends to exacerbate your migraines, there are tricks you can employ to help make this time of virtual hangouts easier on your brain.
What Causes Migraines?
Migraine is a genetic neurological condition that affects one in five women and one in 16 men, according to the American Headache Society. If someone in your family has migraines, you’re more likely to have them as well. A migraine is defined as a headache accompanied by one of more of the following things: nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, throbbing, or sensory disturbances (called “aura”). The frequency and severity of migraines varies from person to person, and it can change throughout your life.
Migraines typically fall into one of two major categories:
Episodic – An episodic migraine is a migraine that lasts between four and 72 hours, causing moderate to severe pain. “A migraine can start out mildly, but once it’s in full form, it should be moderate to severe,” Dr. Cowan explains. He notes that for many people (but not everyone), one side of their head hurts more than the other.
Chronic – If you have more than 15 headache days per month, eight of those days meet the criteria for a migraine, and this occurs over a three-month period, you have what’s called chronic migraine. Each year, 2-3% of people with episodic migraine develop chronic migraine, as a result of specific triggers like stress, medication overuse, lifestyle changes, injury, or other conditions.
Speaking of migraine triggers: “Everybody’s triggers are different,” Dr. Cowan says, “and triggers tend to be partial and additive.” For instance, if red wine is a trigger for you, and lack of sleep is also a trigger, you’re most likely to develop a migraine when you have red wine after a sleepless night.
The same could be said for looking at screens. If bright light triggers your migraines, and stress also triggers your migraines, the combination of these two things is a major headache (pun intended). For Erin Boyle, a 40-year-old writer in Honesdale, PA who lives with migraine, the combination of stress and increased screen time during the coronavirus pandemic has made her migraines go from episodic to chronic. “I’ve been on screens so much more for stuff I’d more commonly do in real life before, especially to video chat with people I could’ve talked to in person,” she says. Boyle has migraines with aura, and she can tell they’re coming on when her vision becomes distorted and her eyes can’t focus on her phone screen–an early sign she is experiencing an aura.
What if My Migraine Symptoms Have Actually Improved?
In his virtual visits with patients, Dr. Cowan explains he has seen just as many people whose migraine symptoms are better during this pandemic as people whose symptoms are worse. “I think it underscores how individual migraine is,” he says. For some people, the time saved from avoiding a work commute or the separation from their office environment might be helping them sleep longer, exercise more, or generally take better care of themselves. If that’s you–that’s great! Maybe this time will help you learn healthy habits you can carry forward once this is over.
How Can I Find Relief?
If, however, you are a member of the unlucky group whose migraines are aggravated by screen time, there are things you can do to stop your symptoms before they get too severe.
Don’t start your day on screens. Gold finds that if she goes straight to her phone or computer the moment she wakes up, she’s more likely to have a migraine that day. “I get up, hydrate, and ideally workout first,” she says. Plus, a consistent morning routine can help you stay sane when you’re stuck inside the house all day.
Take frequent breaks. “If screen time is a trigger for you, your best strategy is to take breaks,” Dr. Cowan says. “It’s the prolonged screen time that tends to be the most consistent trigger.” Boyle rests her eyes every 20 minutes by looking away from the screen for 20 seconds, and she also takes 15-minute breaks every hour. There’s a bonus benefit to doing this–research has shown that taking frequent work breaks can improve focus and productivity, even for people who don’t have migraines.
Dim the lights. Boyle finds that her home provides a better lighting arrangement than the office where she once worked. “Fluorescent overhead lights were a big migraine trigger for me, in addition to screens,” she says. In her home office, she keeps the lighting soft and natural so it’s easier on her eyes. Gold uses natural light at home during the daytime, switching a warm light in the evenings.
Try light-filtering glasses. To be fair, these are controversial. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says it’s not necessary to spend money on blue-light filtering eyewear, because there’s no evidence they reduce eye strain more than simply lowering your brightness and taking breaks.
Still, some people swear by filtered glasses. Gold likes Theraspecs FL-41 glasses, which are designed to help with light sensitivity and reduce migraines. Boyle used to use blue light-blocking glasses when she worked in an office with fluorescent lighting. “It’s certainly harmless to try it,” Dr. Cowan says, so give them a shot if you’re curious.
Create an optimal sleep environment. Gold sets her phone to night shift during evening and night hours, which reduces blue light from the screen. Dr. Cowan recommends minimizing the lights in your room at night. “Your TV, your clock radio, and your various devices can be disruptive to sleep, and it’s certainly worth it to get your sleep environment to be as dark, quiet, and cool as possible,” he says.
Learn to recognize early migraine signs. If you have a clear understanding of your triggers and your early symptoms, you can do your best to prevent the migraine from getting worse. Whenever Boyle feels a migraine coming on, she pauses her workday. “I put down all screens to minimize the eye strain that can worsen migraine pain,” she says.
Minimize your other triggers. Maintain a healthy routine, including regular exercise, a whole foods diet, and adequate sleep. If you’re not sure what your specific migraine triggers are, the American Headache Society suggests starting a headache diary to track your symptoms and lifestyle factors that might contribute. Over time, you may notice patterns that clue you in to your triggers, so you can gain more control of your migraines–and thus, more control of your life.
Average Screen Time for Americans: Nielsen. (2019.) “The Nielsen Total Audience Report: Q3 2018.” nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2019/q3-2018-total-audience-report/
Coronavirus Media Consumption Report: Global Web Index. (2020.) “CWI Coronavirus Research, April 2020, Media Consumption and Sport.” globalwebindex.com/hubfs/1.%20Coronavirus%20Research%20PDFs/GWI%20coronavirus%20findings%20April%202020%20-%20Media%20Consumption%20(Release%204).pdf
Migraine Facts: American Headache Society. (n.d.) “Infographics for Patients.” americanheadachesociety.org/resources/infographics/
Migraine Overview: American Migraine Foundation. (2008.) “What is Migraine?” americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/what-is-migraine/
Migraine Causes: American Migraine Foundation. (2018.) “What Causes Migraine.” americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/what-causes-migraine/
Episodic vs. Chronic Migraine: Current Pain and Headache Reports. (2011.) “Defining the Differences Between Episodic Migraine and Chronic Migraine.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258393/
Migraines and Screen Time: Nature Reviews Neurology. (2016.) “Long screen time exposure could increase the risk of migraine.” nature.com/articles/nrneurol.2015.238
Work Breaks and Productivity: Cognition. (2011.) “Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements.” sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010027710002994
AAO Recommendation on Light-Filtering Glasses: American Academy of Ophthalmology. (2020.) “Light and Digital Eye Strain.” aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/blue-light-digital-eye-strain