Most people who suffer from migraines experience sensory sensitivity.
Humans have many senses, but you’re probably most familiar with the big five: touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. Your senses work together to help you navigate the world. If you’re prone to migraines, however, sometimes your senses can work against you.
The Senses That Can Trigger Migraines
“Migraines are often very sensitive to sensory stimulation for some people. Certain wavelengths of light seem to provoke migraines for some people, certain smells seem to promote migraines. For some people, even loud sounds can provoke migraines,” says Sylvia Mohen, MD, neurologist in New York City.
To make it worse, people who have frequent migraines seem to be increasingly sensitive to lights, smells, and odors.
It is estimated that 90 percent of people who experience migraines are sensitive to light. This is called photosensitivity. “Sometimes people who become more chronic migraineurs or have a higher burden of migraine headaches become very sensitive to light overall, just as a result of their migraines,” says Dr. Mohen.
Another common indicator of migraines is osmophilia, or sensitivity to odors. This is estimated to occur in about 95 percent of people with migraines. If you find that your coworker’s strong perfume, cigarette smoke, car exhaust, cleaning products, and certain foods trigger a migraine, you may be sensitive to certain smells.
“People with migraines also sometimes develop something called phantosmia, which is olfactory hallucinations of smells that can be associated with migraines,” says Dr. Mohen. “That can be actually the sign that the migraine is about to occur.” Many people who experience this report that the smells they notice are pretty foul, like the smell of a wet dog.
When you hear a sound, waves travel to and through your ears. This triggers a process that sends a signal to your brain to help you recognize and understand the sound.
“Some people with migraines are what we call very phonosensitive,” says Dr. Mohen. Just like photosensitivity refers to being overreactive to light, phonosensitivity means being hypersensitive to sounds.
“People can become very, very sensitive to sounds overall and find that it worsens migraines or even triggers migraines,” says Dr. Mohen.
Why Are Some Migraineurs Sensitive to Sensory Triggers?
“The brains of people who have migraines are a little different overall than people who don't experience migraines,” says Dr. Mohen.
One National Migraine Association study of people with migraine with aura found more connections between the areas of the brain where light and sound stimuli are processed. This extra connectedness may help explain the increased sensitivity to sound, light, and smells in people with migraine.
What to Do About Sensory Sensitivity
If you're sensitive to external sensory triggers, your first thought may be to avoid them at all costs—but that’s not always possible. Your senses are an important part of your functioning, so your best bet is to work with your doctor to find a balance through lifestyle modifications.
For example, many people work on computers and stare at screens all day. “You can use light filtering covers for your screens. Some people even use these light filtering glasses that may or may not be effective but some people find them helpful. Taking breaks from excessive screen time can be very helpful,” says Dr. Mohen.
“Some people with very severe migraines … will avoid doing certain activities because they're going to be more exposed to these kinds of triggers. [This] is another reason why you should get your migraines under control,” says Dr. Mohen.
If your migraine attacks are significantly affecting your life—whether they are triggered by your senses or not—talk to a doctor. They can help you find relief and help you make sense of your sensory triggers.
Sylvia Mohen, MD, is a neurologist at New York Neurology Associates, P.C.
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Migraines are often very sensitive to sensory stimulation.
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For some people, certain wavelengths of light
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seem to provoke migraines.
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For some people, certain smells seem to provoke migraines.
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For some people, even loud sounds can provoke migraines.
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People who become more susceptible to having
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more frequent migraines sometimes over time become
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much more sensitive to these triggers.
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During a migraine, in the prodrome migraine period
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and even postdrome, your brain becomes
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very sensitive to external stimuli,
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certain smells, lights, and sounds
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can actually worsen pain during the migraine process.
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If you're having a lot of migraines,
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your brain may become sensitive to one particular stimuli
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that when you're exposed to it again, triggers a migraine.
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Migraines are very commonly associated with sensitivity
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to bright lights, something we call photosensitivity.
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And sometimes people who have kind of a higher burden
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of migraine headaches end up becoming very sensitive
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to light overall just as a result of their migraines.
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Olfactory triggers or odors can be very
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provoking for migraines as well.
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People can become very sensitive to particular smells.
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I've had patients have migraines just triggered
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by smelling cigarette smoke.
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People with migraines also sometimes develop
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phantosmias, which are sort of like olfactory hallucinations
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of smells that can be associated with migraine.
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Sometimes you'll smell something,
they're usually pretty gross.
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It's like something burning or wet dog or cigarette smoke
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and that can be a sign that the migraine's about to occur.
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Some people with migraines are what we call
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They have phonophobia,
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and loud sounds can sometimes trigger their migraines.
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People can become very, very sensitive to sounds overall,
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and find that it worsens migraines
or even triggers migraines.
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For people with migraines who are very sensitive
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to external sensory triggers like light triggers,
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smell triggers, or sound triggers,
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the first thing you can do is avoid them
at all possible costs
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but that's not always possible.
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Particularly light triggers, people do end up having
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to work in this day and age on screens very frequently
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so sometimes we'll discuss possible modifications
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You can use light-filtering covers for your screens.
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Some people even use these light-filtering glasses
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that may or may not be effective,
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but some people find them helpful.
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Taking breaks from excessive screen time can be very helpful.
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Avoiding smells, perfumes.
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Avoiding excessive sound stimuli.
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unfortunately for some people with very severe migraines,
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and this then progresses to a point where they will avoid
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doing certain activities because they're gonna be
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more exposed to these kinds of triggers,
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which is another reason why you should
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get your migraines under control.
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- Multisensory Integration in Migraine. Curr Opin Neurol, 2013. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)
- Photophobia (Light Sensitivity) and Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)
- Chronic Migraine and Abnormal Sense of Smell Linked. National Headache Foundation. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)
- Migraine, osmophilia, and anxiety. Pain Medicine, 2016. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)
- Pathophysiology of migraine: A disorder of sensory processing. Physiological Reviews, 2017. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)
- Hyperacusis. UCSF Health. (Accessed on August 26, 2020.)