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Migraine and Sensory Overload: Tips to Cope

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Sensory overload is the over-stimulating of the body’s senses from the surrounding environment. This can be a challenge for people living with migraine — and a major trigger.

Sensory overload could be from an over-crowded room, screens, loud noises, bright lights, strong odors, or touch. People with migraine are often impacted by sensory overload due to their increased sensitivity to external stimuli.

Symptoms associated with sensory overload include:

  • difficulty focusing
  • becoming overexcited
  • muscle tension
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • sleeplessness
  • avoiding touching or being touched
  • covering ears to drown out loud noises
  • irritation to different textures
  • fidgeting or restlessness
  • dizziness

Sensory overload can manifest in people with migraine through the following:

  • Photophobia: sensitivity to bright lights, computer screens, televisions, mobile devices, sun light, strobe lights, neon lights
  • Phonophobia: sensitivity to loud sounds, crowded rooms, music or theater venues, movie theaters, loud conversations, traffic
  • Sensitivity to strong odors and smells: fragrances, air fresheners, exhaust, paint, harsh chemicals, cleansers, cigarette/cigar/pipe smoke
  • Allodynia: feeling pain in areas where you normally wouldn’t due to certain stimuli such as brushing hair or wearing clothing

It can be difficult avoiding these stimuli, but there are ways you can reduce its impact on you and your migraine. Since sensory overload can feel like the triggers that bring on migraine, using your coping skills should help manage the symptoms associated with both.

I experience sensory overload daily, but there are things I can do to reduce the effect it has on my body. Here are some personal and practical tips that may help you.

Photophobia

My eyes are extremely sensitive to bright lights, especially fluorescent lights and the flickering of the television screen. For me, exposure to these stimuli can cause eye pain, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, and fatigue.

Artificial light sources are more of an issue for me than natural sunlight, so I invested in a pair of indoor precision tinted eyeglasses. These glasses have a special tint called FL-41 that blocks out the harmful (and painful) wavelengths emitted from artificial and harsh light.

I wear them whenever I use my computer, mobile device, or when watching television. They’re extremely helpful when I am in a waiting room or office with fluorescent lighting.

If the sun is an issue for you, these glasses come in outdoor versions as well. You can get these glasses with your prescription and some companies even sell contact lenses with the FL-41 tint.

Working in an office usually means you’re subjected to fluorescent lighting. Light filters can be installed to filter out the harsh light causing strain on your eyes and difficulty concentrating. They will reduce fatigue, eye pain, dizziness, and lightheadedness associated with photophobia.

Antiglare covers for your computer screen and mobile devices will help to reduce eye strain. Using these accommodations in your office will not only help you be more productive, but also create a healthier work environment for everyone.

Phonophobia

Loud sounds can be very painful to people with migraine. They can instantly bring on a migraine attack ruining your day, especially if it was unexpected. Whenever you can, try to prepare for times when you know you will be around loud noises.

Crowded spaces like airplanes, waiting rooms, and restaurants can be extremely noisy. Noise canceling headphones would be great to use in these situations. Keeping a pair of earplugs in your bag, desk, or car are great in a pinch when you unexpectedly encounter loud noises, such as road work or construction.

You may need to forego attending concerts or live performances altogether if the combination of being in a crowded area and loud music is too overwhelming.

Smells and odors

Have you ever had to walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke before entering a building or had to trek through the fragrance department in a store? Those intense smells may bring on a migraine and can be unavoidable at times.

Although we cannot control what happens outdoors or what others do, there are a few ways to help lessen their effect. If you’re driving and there’s a vehicle with a nasty exhaust, turn off the air intake vent so air from outside doesn’t come in. Use a car oil diffuser to create a more pleasant smell and environment.

Putting a few drops of your favorite essential oil on a tissue or cloth to smell when surrounded by unpleasant odors can make entering buildings, sitting in waiting rooms, or trips to the mall more tolerable.

If you have coworkers who wear fragrant perfumes, colognes, or body lotions, you can ask for the office space to be a fragrance-free zone. Inquire if green cleansers can be used instead of harsh ones.

It’s better for the environment and healthier for the entire office. No one likes breathing in nasty fumes. Keeping a couple odor-filtering masks in your desk drawer or glove box can be helpful in a pinch if you don’t mind wearing one.

Allodynia

After living with migraine for years, my scalp has become extremely sensitive to touch. At times my hair feels like it hurts. Just the slightest touch and my scalp feels like it’s been put through the wringer.

Brushing my hair, washing it, and styling it is always painful. I can’t completely stop these overactive nerves from firing all day long. But what I can do is make small changes in how I groom myself.

I have very thick, kinky-curly hair which can be a beast to manage. Over time, I found better ways to take care of it. On wash days, I part my hair into four sections and wash them one at a time. I make sure to condition each section well to make detangling easier.

This process puts less strain on my hair and scalp and I’m not in as much pain. I also don’t wash my hair that often and try not to manipulate it too much.

For some people, allodynia can be an issue all over the body. Try to wear clothing that is comfortable and made with soft, natural fibers — synthetic materials, wool, and corduroy may be irritating to the skin. Loose-fitting clothing will allow your skin to breathe and have less contact with the material, as opposed to tighter-fitting clothes.

At bedtime, use bedding that is soft and non-irritating. Keep your skin moisturized. Fragrance- and dye-free soaps and lotions can also help keep the surface of the skin smoother and supple. This may help in reducing the irritation fabrics can cause.

For more information on how to manage migraine and sensory overload, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.

Article resources

MIG-US-NP-00112  FEBRUARY 2019