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Dr. Lloyd's blog has now been retired. We appreciate all the wisdom and support Dr. Lloyd has brought to the WebMD community throughout the years.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Can Light Bulbs Stimulate Migraine?

Have you started replacing your old incandescent lightbulbs with those expensive, energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps? They’re supposed to save energy, reduce environmental carbon dioxide, and pay for themselves within a year (unless you are clumsy like me and you drop one!)

America has been relatively slow to adapt. Kinda reminds me of those telemarketing charities that pester us nightly:

Salesman: Want to buy a box of 10-year lightbulbs and support spotted owl research?

Customer: Mine are still buring bright! Why not call back in 7 or 8 years?

The British government has mandated elimination of conventional lightbulbs by 2011. Wait a minute! Critics claim health concerns related to these new lamps are being overlooked. Specifically, one advocacy group representing migraine sufferers suggests that the new eco-bulbs actually trigger migraine attacks. They are unclear regarding the proposed mechanism: erratic flickering of the bulbs, toxic (visible) wavelengths, or perhaps some combination of effects.

For decades we have known that some folks are physically uncomfortable in environments with exposed fluorescent tube lighting but controlled studies comparing the rates of acute migraine among age-matched population groups have never been performed.

The UK Migraine Action Association has plenty of anecdotal stories from migraine sufferers that link more frequent migraine headaches with use of these high-efficiency lightbulbs.

Millions of Americans have been diagnosed with migraine and a comparable number have evaded diagnosis. Three-fourths of migraine patients report specific ‘triggers‘ that appear to stimulate new attacks. Here’s how these triggers break down in decreasing frequency:

  • Stress (80%)
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Hunger (57%)
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in weather
  • Specific aromas/odors (44%)
  • Specific foods
  • Heat
  • Lighting (38%)
  • Exercise
  • …even Sexual activity (5%)

It makes little sense to debunk whether or not visible light emitted from a fluorescent lamp causes migraine when we know the same thing can happen to some people who smell pumpkin pie!

If traditional lightbulbs are doomed to extinction then those vulnerable to this migraine ‘trigger’ need an action plan to protect themselves.

Good news! Migraine researchers know that medications prescribed to prevent acute migraine attacks seem to work best on individuals with known triggers.

Regarding the known relationship between adverse visual stimuli (glare, flickering, harsh light) and migraine, recent research has shown that wearing a mild green-blue spectacle tint greatly improves fluorescent light tolerability. This could be helpful for anyone who finds it difficult to remain in any fluorescent-illuminated area. Hopefully, future advances in compact fluorescent lightbulb design will overcome the problem with flickering, slow warmups, and harsh illumination.

Once they eliminate any migraine hazard they can get to work on how to make them cheaper!

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Posted by: Bill Lloyd MD at 1:47 pm

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