Sensing Your Triggers: How Lights, Sounds, and Odors Impact Migraines

Most people who suffer from migraines experience sensory sensitivity.

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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.

Sight (Light)

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.

Smell

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.

Sounds

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.