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.

  • How’z that possible…..????

  • When I was a little kid I had lots of problems with even having some (bright) light near me, but now that I’ve grown up that’s all gone…it’s weird though, but interesting article!

  • Sarah

    Absolutely. I was ok with old-fashioned fluorescent lighting – the ones that had covers over them – but ever since the fluorescent strip-lighting with the metal strips across but with the fluorescent light being able to be seen – I suffer migraine after migraine after migraine. When I tried to complain in the UK about this to the British Lighting Federation, they told me it was me, but it is to do with the new-style fluorescent lighting that has been in since the beginning of the 1990s, not the old-fashioned fluorescent lighting with tubes covering the fluorescent lights!

  • Michelle Kalish

    I recently discovered through being tested by a trained screener for Irlen that I have a sever case of Irlen syndrome. I was 48 when tested, I struggled through school, although I excelled in visual arts and anything creative. After re sitting the Irlen test using the pastel shaded translucent filter sheet I scored 3 times higher. I realised I had a problem that was solvable and my school years were now a thing of the past. SO having chosen a career that utilised my visual photographic memory and shied away from anything that required math, research using the written format Irlen glasses have offered me a new way of seeing. For both reading and regular multi-focal lenses I cannot praise the system higher.
    As an accomplished interior designer I am aware that the new fluorescent light fittings are causing problems with migraine sufferers, myself being one. I have suffered for more than 26 years with the most horrendous head pain,12 hour light sensitivity, I have to go to sleep in room without sound or light.
    The gas within the new light bulbs is poisonous yet the manufacturer’s warning is so small and the public is not warned enough, you are supposed to leave the area if the glass breaks. When will the public truly be given healthy light? More should be exposed about it’s dangers then maybe the law will be changed.

  • Dhan


    The florescent has a “wavelength” that is noticeable. They are filled with gases and contain mercury.

    I understand the POWER companies running out of power, but to force use of environmental dangerous devices without implementing a disposable system and education for handling the bulbs is irresponsible.

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  • Michael

    Do you think fluorescent light covers like octo light could help?

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  • edtruman

    The problem fluorescent lights is that a vast number of neurological problems can happen to alot of people.
    Currently, we have had an increase in diabetes, seizures, learning disability, attention deficit disorder, reading comprehension, sleeping disorders.
    These problems are not decreasing but growing because of the increase in fluorescent light bulbs.
    The fluorescent light bulbs do have the toxic chemical mercury that will cause more health problems.

  • Tonia

    HELP! I recently had a car accident July 23rd, 2013. Had a series of CTs, Xrays and 1 MRI. But have suffered from major migraines, absence from work since the accident. I am highly sensitive to light and sound. My family doctor has tried to find a neurologist here(Central Arkansas) for me to see but they do not want to get involved in a car accident case. I am waiting on UAMS to review my file to see if they want to take me on as a patient. I am suffering in the meantime. What do
    you recommend me do?


  • Lauri Schwalm

    For the past several years I have been having worsening migraine headaches. I know the triggers and flourescent lights are the worst. Restaurants and grocery stores, department stores, and even my own kitchen flourescent lights trigger all of the effects that I have read about on this site.

    Has anyone found anything, other than the glasses, that helps to keep the lights from causing the problems? I get so dizzy when I have been in the lights for more than a few minutes that I can’t walk straight.

    I have been referred to a neurologist who specializes in migraines. Are there any other physicians who specialize in the effects of the lighting on the brain?

    Thanks for any help you can give me. So glad I am a touch typist because I have my eyes closed much of the time I am on my computer.
    Lauri S.

    • Jason

      I have had this problem for 6 years. It has ruined my life I struggle everyday with eye strain and migraines. There Is no cure and no doctor Is ever gonna solve your problem. I have been looking for a cure to this problem forever with no results. Fl 41 tint glasses will give you a little relief but are nowhere near a cure for this problem. Increasing your vitamin B2 Intake will help a bit with the migraines. I do both these things and still suffer everyday. I recommend buying an old CRT monitor If you wanna use the computer still because they are not powered with a fluorescent light bulb.

  • Jason

    Has anyone found a natural cure for this problem yet? I have been suffering from this condition for 6 years now and still haven’t found anything that works.

  • tom

    Someone came by my house with a shower head that was supposed to save water. It mixes air in with the water flow. OK, so it will take twice as long to wash the shampoo out of my hair, thus same amount of water used.

    This is the fallacy of our modern concept of energy savings. Light bulbs: So we use florescent bulbs that cycle on and off, but the gas continues to refract light in the intervals. So really, it’s less light. Thus more bulbs need to be on in the room/house.

    And ‘their’ argument against complaints of headaches etc: Our feeble human brains cannot perceive the on/off pulsing of these new bulbs. I think we should give our brains more credit. Obviously at a deeper level there is an unconscious perception of this pulsing. Obviously there is something going on.

    I have, and love incandescent bulbs for the warm, bright, and natural quality of light they emit. When I leave the room I turn the lights off. This is how you save energy. How is it that in modern society we try to sterilize personal responsibility out of the equation.

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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