Do Fluorescent Lights Give You Headaches? You’re Not Alone

Fluorescent lights are everywhere — in schools, hospitals, grocery stores, the shopping mall, and now, more than ever, they are also in our homes. With recent initiatives to increase energy efficiency, individuals are regularly swapping out their incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent bulbs in their bedside table lamps and kitchen pendant lights. The result is simply a lower energy bill for most, but for the 37 million Americans who are light sensitive, this small change can add to the constant stress their brains are under as a result of bright and fluorescent lighting.

Since 1980, research has repeatedly documented the presence of, and difficulties associated with, a little known disorder known as Irlen syndrome. Irlen syndrome is a perceptual processing disorder affecting 12-14% of the general population and characterized by a variety of physical symptoms exacerbated by bright lighting (bright lights, fluorescent, computer screens, iPhone, white paper, white boards) and visually intensive activities.

Three decades worth of psychological and educational research has documented the difficulties individuals with Irlen syndrome experience, including issues with print clarity and stability, headaches, migraines, nausea, depth perception, and fatigue. But only recent research utilizing advanced brain mapping technology has revealed exactly what the brain looks like when individuals with Irlen syndrome are exposed to bright lighting and tasked with visually intensive activities. Researchers have utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), visual evoked responses (VER), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans to objectively document the profound effects of sensory overload on the brain. In one study by Amen and colleagues, comparing the brains of 42 people with Irlen syndrome to 200 age-matched individuals without any evidence of Irlen syndrome, SPECT showed increased activity in the brain’s emotional and visual processing centers and decreased activity in the cerebellum (an area that helps to integrate coordination and new information).

For these individuals, lighting and glare, high contrast (black print on white paper), and visually intensive activities create high levels of stress for a brain that is unable to correctly process the visual information being sent to it. Fluorescent lights are exceptionally troublesome for individuals with Irlen Syndrome and tend to trigger and exacerbate symptoms, including headaches and migraines. Their brains have difficulty processing specific wavelengths of light, and the offensive wavelengths of light create stress for the brain, resulting in over-activity, complex brain patterns, and non-normalized functioning. This results in a variety of issues, including difficulties reading because letters and words blur or move on the page; issues with glare or discomfort from the white background on the printed page; physical symptoms, such as headaches, migraines, nausea, eye-strain and fatigue; and depth perception issues. In addition, when the brain is under constant stress from lighting conditions and the environment, it can impact functioning of the entire nervous system, resulting in not just physical symptoms like headaches and migraines, but also impacting the auto-immune system, allergies, sleep patterns and overall energy levels.

Color Can Ease the Pain and Normalize the Brain

For those with Irlen syndrome, it is possible to remove the stress on the brain by using colored spectral filters (worn as glasses). The correct color will filter out the specific wavelength(s) of light to which the individual is sensitive. This modifies the speed at which visual information reaches the brain and allows the brain to correctly process the information, eliminating physical discomfort and distortion on the printed page and in the environment. SPECT scans show that when an individual with Irlen syndrome is wearing the correct color, most of the hotspots showing overactive brain activity disappear. This translates to a calm brain, elimination of headaches, migraines and other physical discomfort, and increased ability to process visual information.

The important thing to remember is that most people don’t have any problem with fluorescent lighting — it does not give them headaches, it does not make it harder for them to read, it does not affect how their brains function. However, for those who make up the estimated 37 million Americans who are light sensitive, fluorescent lighting can have a dramatic effect on the brain and the individual’s ability to process visual information successfully and pain-free. Color can alleviate light sensitivity and related difficulties and discomfort for many.


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Image via olivier / Shutterstock.

Sandra Tosta, PhD

Sandra Tosta, PhD, holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Development from Cornell University and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative primary research in both corporate and academic settings. As a senior researcher at the Hypothesis Group for nearly a decade, she focused on research related to children and education. She has authored a variety of papers on related topics and contributed a chapter on parenting in a multimedia society in Marc Bornstein’s Handbook of Parenting: Volume 5. She currently serves as head of research for the Perceptual Development Corporation at the Irlen Institute International Headquarters.
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