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Can Eye Strain Cause Migraines?

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A working woman with throbbing headache and visual aura, signs of migraine with aura, is holding the sides of her head.

Visual Triggers

Most people think of eye exams for eye-related symptoms like blurry vision or pink eye. But your eyes can tell you a lot about your health, including conditions that can impact more than your eyes. For example, migraines often have visual symptoms and triggers.

So, how does your vision relate to migraines and headaches?

What Is a Migraine?

A migraine is a neurological condition causing moderate to severe symptoms, usually involving a throbbing headache. The symptoms can last up to 30 minutes, and discomfort can worsen with movement. About 20% of people experience migraines. Migraines can run in families and affect both children and adults. 

Migraines have 4 phases: prodrome, aura, attack, and postdrome. Some people experience all the stages, while others skip the aura or attack stage: 

  • A classic migraine includes visual symptoms and headaches, usually moving through all 4 stages. 
  • A variant migraine does not include a headache but still causes other symptoms.

Symptoms in the prodrome stage can occur up to 2 days before any head discomfort. You may experience low energy, depression, food cravings, hyperactivity, neck stiffness, or irritability. 

If you experience migraines with aura, you can have symptoms affecting your vision, sensation, and speech. Common vision symptoms include shimmering or colored lights, flashes of light, or zigzagging lines. Aura can also cause tingling or prickling on the skin, such as the face, arms, or legs.

Symptoms vary during a migraine attack but can include:

  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Throbbing or pulsing head pain

Postdrome symptoms affect mood and feelings. You may experience a range of states, from extremely happy to low energy. Additionally, some people experience persistent (but less severe) head discomfort during the final stage.

A man with a migraine, triggered by loud sounds, is covering his ears with his hands.

What Causes Migraines?

Migraine triggers include:

  • Bright lights, loud sounds, or strong smells
  • Dehydration or hunger
  • High-intensity physical activity
  • Hormonal changes
  • Medication overuse
  • Stress or fatigue
  • Too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Weather changes

Many factors that trigger migraines can occur with eye strain. 

Eye strain usually occurs when you’ve been intensively focusing on a task and can be caused by how you use your eyes for these tasks and other habits. For example, you may drink less water, miss lunchtime, or feel stressed while focusing on a task. As a result, your eyes can start to feel tired or strained. However, eye strain is more likely associated with other kinds of headaches rather than migraines, and even these are rare.

Migraines vs. Headaches

A migraine is not a headache, although they share similar symptoms. A headache usually causes mild, dull pressure and is felt on both sides of the head. A migraine causes intense pulsing or throbbing pain, usually focused on one side of the head. The focal point of the head discomfort may be the left side, right side, front, back, or temples. 

Generally, migraines cause more severe symptoms, but headache discomfort can range from mild to severe. For example, cluster headaches cause a cycle of severe headache attacks. The primary way to tell the difference is the appearance of additional symptoms rather than the intensity.

The causes of migraines and headaches can also differ. A sinus infection, for example, can cause headaches due to sinus pressure, while the most common headache type—tension headache—can result from stress, dry eyes, and eye strain.

What Causes Eye Strain?

Eye strain is when your eyes feel strained or tired, often because of overworking your eyes by focusing too long at the same distance. As a result, you can experience blurry vision, eye irritation, headaches, and neck, shoulders, or back discomfort.

Visually-intense work or hobbies can contribute to eye strain, such as driving long distances or reading.

Digital devices are a common cause of digital eye strain in children and adults. Your eyes work harder when viewing a digital device. Additionally, screen glare, poor lighting, incomplete blink patterns, and poor posture can contribute to discomfort when using these devices.

Managing Migraines & Headaches

Migraines and headaches can be chronic problems. Depending on your symptoms and experience, you may manage your condition with a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, or therapy.

Pain relievers and muscle relaxers can offer relief for headaches in the short term. However, you’ll also want to implement management strategies related to your triggers. For example, when eye strain is a trigger, taking breaks and getting more rest can help. Dry eye therapy can also offer personalized solutions when dry eye symptoms trigger your headaches.

Home remedies to relieve tension headaches include:

  • Applying heat or cold: Heating pads or warm compresses can help relax muscles contributing to the tension. Ice packs can help dull pain.
  • Following the 20-20-20 Rule: Prolonged screen time can contribute to headaches, digital eye strain, and dry eye. Take a 20-second screen break every 20 minutes and look at an object 20 feet away.
  • Improving posture: Viewing distance and posture can also significantly impact digital eye strain. Good posture can also benefit general health and wellness.
  • Taking a hot bath or shower: Immersing yourself in heat can relax tense muscles and help reduce stress.

Vision Solutions

Managing your visual symptoms and triggers can provide you with relief for migraines or headaches. Your optometrist can help you find solutions that work for you to prevent and manage conditions that contribute to headaches and migraines, like digital eye strain or dry eyes

At Los Angeles EyeCare, we strive to earn patient confidence through exemplary services and a caring attitude. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible. Book an appointment to see how we can help.

Written by Total Vision

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