Putting photophobia in the past

Migraines are the worst – 12% of the world’s population suffer from them. They can last a few hours, a day, or even a week. It all starts with a trigger; it could be stress, hunger, lack of sleep, a sudden change in temperature, and yes, you’ve guessed it, even light!

Light is known to be one of the most common causes of migraines, the exact trigger can be different from person to person but ultimately the result is the same, intense pain and deep discomfort.

As lighting designers, we are the safeguards of balanced designs, ensuring lighting has no adverse effects to those with sensitivities. Our schemes should be creative but inclusive, ensuring that no-one feels alienated when occupying a space, particularly those who may physically suffer as a result.

But how do we successfully balance the needs of the space with the needs of the user? First, let’s take a look at the science…

What is photophobia?

Between 80 and 90 per cent of migraine sufferers experience the phenomenon known as ‘photophobia’ or ‘photosensitivity’, a hypersensitivity to light. Exposure to fluorescent lights, glare from screens or intensity of light may lead to a migraine, causing potentially debilitating symptoms.

The most common trigger? Intensity of light. The wavelengths emitted by bright artificial and intense natural light can generate a sensory overload in the brain causing a migraine in those that are photosensitive. But there are also several other everyday factors known to be prominent causes.

Flickering lights – a light source with a high flicker rate, invisible pulsing, often in the form of a fluorescent source, can be problematic. Although the flicker rate is too fast for the naked eye to register, the brain still receives the pulsing signals, which in turn triggers neurological pathways to fire repetitively, resulting in a migraine. Don’t believe us? Just hold your phone camera up to the lights around you and I bet you see some of them flickering (this is because of the increased frame capture rate of your phone vs your eye).

Studies suggest that different colours of light generate different electrical signals in the retina and brain which may be the reasoning behind varying levels of pain in a migraine. White, blue, amber, and red light can be known to intensify headaches and to a greater extent when compared with warmer colours of yellow and green light for example, due to the different electrical signals each colour induces.

There is evidence to suggest that contrast ratio may also be a common trigger. A bright screen set against a dark background creates contrast, providing visual context for the eye, this focus can be known as a preventative measure against migraines. However, balancing light levels and reducing the brightness of a screen, so that there is no contrast, can reduce eye strain and the likeliness of developing a migraine – highlighting that for some people contrast helps, yet with others it can cause migraines, triggers are person dependant.

How can we design for migraine sufferers?

A sufferer of migraines myself, I have noticed that my sensitivity to light has intensified over the years. I have gone from having no problems with bright, white lighting, to now seeking dimmed, warm lighting. Light is intangible, but luckily there are a host of tangible elements that can be employed to discourage migraines.

Contemporary Chic London Workplace Discreet Concealed Lighting Design Consultants Nulty

Controlling light levels in the workplace is a great starting point to support those with photophobia. A good approach would be to create layers of light using warm, low glare light fixtures. Ideally, dimmable LED light sources should be used consistently as they allow for complete control of light output. Halogen bulbs can also be a great alternative due to the warm, white light they emit at 2700K, a quality of light that is significantly less likely to trigger an attack.

Consider vertical illumination – walls should be washed with soft light to create a bright background. Add accent lighting to the space to create a second layer of light, spotlights that highlight artwork or the corners of the room can have a subtle yet meaningful effect. And finally, include a tertiary layer, a simple desk lamp to focus light on worktops and screens.

Creating these layers helps offset glare and can massively reduce the risk of a migraine and we should be aiming to replicate these techniques in other environments, especially when it comes to public spaces such as hospitality and retail.

Above all, the ability to control and set light levels on an individual basis is a powerful tool when it comes to mitigating migraines and thankfully, we have devices at our fingertips that allow for individuals to do so. The use of an app and the swipe of a touchscreen may be all that is needed to ensure that those with photophobia need not suffer in silence. Give the user the ability to control the lighting arrangement, allow them to manage the scheme and their sensitivity on a personal level, design for them to take back control.

What remains…

Lighting should be supportive of our wellbeing in multiple ways, and not only taking migraine sufferers into account. Differing wavelengths can cause a sensory overload in individuals with many types of neurodivergent thinking, which in turn trigger negative consequences. Considerations such as these should be accounted for in all manner of design functionality.

Lighting Scheme Open Plan Office Workstations Diffused Linear Ceiling Lights Track Spotlight System Industrial Architecture Exposed Services Lighting Design Consultants Nulty

Let’s not forget that sight is our primary sense and despite this fact, our knowledge in this area is disparate, especially from a medical and psychological perspective. Even though some significant research has been done on the subject, we don’t have a comprehensive approach spearheaded by industry bodies with an aim to improve education and knowledge transfer.

We are constantly learning more about the impact that lighting has on people be it their mood, psychology, or even nervous system, it goes unsaid that this should be the basis of our work.  But we need to continue to strive to further our understanding of how a balanced lighting design can create a comforting and welcoming atmosphere to users. It is our job to ensure that our schemes have a minimal effect on those using the space, ultimately alleviating risks to those with photosensitivity.

Good lighting should first and foremost be non-triggering, subtle; it should induce calm and not incite pain, it should be layered, balanced, and create that sought after atmosphere. As an industry we need to be more proactive, encouraging research and ultimately educating clients, as well as end-users about the pitfalls of artificial lighting.

Ultimately, we need to be designing inclusively, migraines induced by lighting should become a thing of the past and even though it might be a headache for us, these considerations should be at the forefront of our minds.