Bright Light And Hard Exercise May Not Be Migraine Triggers After All
January 24, 2013

Bright Light And Hard Exercise May Not Be Migraine Triggers After All

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

New research that was recently published in the journal Neurology suggests that two supposed migraine triggers, bright lights and hard exercise, may not have as much of an effect as previously thought.

In what sounds like one of the most cruelly designed experiments, researchers had 27 migraine patients run or ride an exercise bike at maximum effort for one hour, while the scientists used a combination of lamps and bright flashes for up to 40 minutes to study the combined effect of light and physical exertion on those suffering from the excruciating headaches.

“What have generally been reported as sure triggers for migraines, are not so sure when you actually expose people to them,” study co-author Dr. Jes Olesen, from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, told Time magazine.

Olesen and his colleagues also set out to find out how these triggers related to migraines with aura, a type of headache accompanied by incapacitating visual disturbances. About 20 percent of migraine patients also experience aura.

"People with migraine with aura are told to avoid possible triggers, which may lead them to avoid a wide range of suspected factors," Olesen said. "Yet the most commonly reported triggers are stress, bright light, emotional influences and physical effort, which can be difficult to avoid and potentially detrimental, if people avoid all physical activity."

After these physical sessions, the researchers found that only 3 out of the 27 patients contracted migraines with auras, and an additional 3 patients experienced migraines without auras. The researchers also exposed the study participants to the light stimuli without heavy exercise. None of the participants experienced any kind of migraine from light alone.

Olesen said many of the patients in his study were surprised to learn that light did not induce their headaches.

“The patients were almost apologetic to us because they had indicated it would cause an attack, but it didn´t,” he said.

Just because bright and flashing lights didn´t cause migraines among the 27 participants in this study doesn´t mean that they will not cause it in other patients and Olesen noted that each person should increase their awareness about their own individual condition.

“Everybody with a migraine should try to find out what is triggering their attacks,” he said. “When they have a suspicion, it would be a good idea to try and see if it induces an attack. In most cases, it´s probably not going to be true.”

In an accompanying editorial that also appeared in Neurology, two scientists made a distinction between symptoms and triggers of migraines. Dr. Stephen D. Silberstein, a professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University who co-authored the editorial, suggested that some patients may confuse symptoms with triggers.

“You eat chocolate and you get a headache. Does that mean chocolate triggers the headache?” Silberstein said to Time. “What probably happens is the first symptom of your migraine attack is the desire to eat chocolate.”

He added that recognizing a trigger, not a symptom, is one of the most important things a person with migraines can do.

“Trigger avoidance is overdone,” Silberstein said. “If you know something is going to cause your headache, whether you believe it as a result of conditioning or reality, avoid it. But people who take away everything in life that they love because it might trigger their headache, that´s useless.”