Written by Zeynab Mohamed
Around 10 million people suffer from migraines in the UK, but light therapy is helping some people to manage their pain.
Imagine a huge sledgehammer hammering away at your head. Thump, thump, thump. There are days when that’s the best way to describe what a migraine feels like. Some days, my migraines come after a slow build-up, the final intensity ballooning so quickly that the entire day collapses in on itself. On other days, it appears so quickly that you can’t tell where your day started or ended.
I can’t quite remember when I first started to experience migraines, but since then, each one has felt worse than the previous. Not to be confused with the average headache, a migraine is its own thing entirely.
The NHS describes a migraine as a “severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Many people also have symptoms like nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.’’ Unlike a headache (which is confined to the head), a migraine can be a whole-body experience. However, until you’ve suffered from one yourself or know someone who has, it can be easy to brush one off as ‘just a headache’.
Migraines are more common than you might think and can be triggered by a range of factors, from genetics and food intolerances to hormones, lifestyle and environment. According to an NHS report, around 10 million people between the ages of 15–69 suffer from migraines and that’s in the UK alone.
In my family, my younger sister, my cousin, my aunt and I all suffer from migraines, an unsurprising statistic considering women are three times more likely to suffer from migraines than men. In women aged 18–60, migraines have been linked to hormonal shifts – specifically the fluctuation of hormones throughout the menstrual cycle.
I’ve tried a slew of remedies and yet migraines remain a constant in my life. Everything from ginger to piercings to cold compresses, no stone has been left unturned. Until I stumbled across LED (light emitting diode) light therapy.
I’ll be honest, I was sceptical. Especially considering that light, whether it’s natural or artificial, can trigger or worsen a migraine attack: an estimated 80% of people with migraines react sensitively to light during a migraine. So, when LED therapy was suggested as a treatment method, I was hesitant and reached out to someone who would know.
“There are many health benefits of LED technology, alongside the aesthetic benefits,” Lily Earle, founder of light therapy brand Cellreturn UK, tells me. “I had been suffering from debilitating, chronic migraines and first discovered the powers of LED when I heard about another therapy for chronic pain and inflammation called near-infrared (NIR) therapy.
“I was blown away by how the NIR could help manage my pain, as well as being anti-inflammatory and wound healing. It helped me sleep through the night for the first time in three years,” she says. Disrupted sleep can be a key trigger for migraine attacks.
How can LED technology help migraines?
I didn’t need to be told twice. After using the Cellreturn mask consistently when my migraines occurred, I noticed that the attacks were significantly shorter and not as stressful. In fact, it felt like I was able to shut out the world and confine my migraine to a small period of time and space. It felt like a high-tech version of hiding underneath your bed covers. But how exactly was it helping me?
Earle explains. “The converted chemical energy from the light emitting diodes in the mask promote wound healing, are anti-inflammatory and are work as a pain control.”
Then she gets specific. “This works for migraines because it inhibits the production of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), as well as inhibiting the messenger RNA (mRNA) expression of cyclo-oxygenase 1 (COX-1) and cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2), which further decreases prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), leading to decreased inflammation and pain.’’
In layman’s terms, prostaglandins, a group of lipids (naturally occurring fats in the skin), are created at sites of tissue damage, infection and illness. They have hormone-like effects, meaning they can influence inflammation and pain in the body. Lowering the volume of these can help with pain management and give people with migraines some relief.
Which type of light is best for migraines?
“Research has suggested that green light therapy specifically can help ease the pain and disturbances of headaches,” Navin Khosla, medical writer at NiceRX tells me. “It does this by emitting a weaker signal than the other coloured lights (red, blue, purple), which eases the impact that other lighting has on an individual’s retinas, particularly those who suffer from migraines caused by light sensitivity. The pain caused by migraines is reduced and, in some cases, the number of days it lasts for is also reduced.”
However, Khosla reminds me that while this area of treatment for migraines is promising, the research is very much underdeveloped.
Will I continue to use LED therapy to treat migraines?
Yes, but I understand it’s an expensive piece of technology and it doesn’t fit every budget. No migraine attack is the same and I find that having an arsenal of tools – good sleep hygiene, for example – is the best approach. Being conscious of my triggers, I always make a note whenever I feel a migraine coming on [to remind me] what I’ve eaten and what my environment is like, which helps me avoid them. Lastly, it might sound cliché but staying hydrated and managing stressors are also key. Most importantly, seek out professional help from your GP if you feel that migraines are significantly impacting your life. Your health is worth it.
Main image: Getty
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