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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

So Bright You Gotta Wear Shades

One of the more debilitating aspects of my daily migraines is that my eyes are constantly sensitive to light. Even if I'm not currently experiencing pain, ordinary levels of light can hurt my eyes and may trigger a migraine. Light triggers can include lit lamps indoors, virtually any kind of store lighting, the reflection of overhead lights on polished floors, the sun coming in at low angles, the sun reflecting off of chrome surfaces (from faucets to car bumpers), the sun reflecting off of shiny surfaces (car windshields, any kind of water, etc.), pretty much sunlight in general, bright overcast skies, streetlights and headlights, any sort of light that blinks, computer and other electronics screens, TV shows or movies with flickering and flashing images or editing, and really just about everything else imaginable except my little 40-watt lamp in my bedroom. I take a variety of precautions to protect myself from light, from filtering blinds on the kitchen and study windows and a black-out blind in my bedroom, always keeping the contrast on my computer monitor turned all the way down, a anti-glare film on the computer monitor, sitting so I face away from lamps and windows whenever possible, avoiding going into stores or out of the house at night, and being selective about what I watch, but really, if I'm ever going to leave my bedroom, I have to be wearing some kind of shades. 

When I first got the migraines, I had two pairs of sunglasses: the cheap, oversized fashion frames I'm wearing in the photo on the left and a pair of more expensive polarized lenses that I'm wearing WITH a pair of reading glasses on the right. While the polarized lenses, purchased when I first started having migraines when I was in college, were better sunglasses, they didn't offer the same eyebrows-to-cheekbones coverage as the oversized pair. I found the contrast between the dark lenses and the surrounding bright light very painful, so I almost exclusively wore the larger pair.

In the spring of 2010, I went in for a standard eye exam and told my optometrist all about the onset of the chronic migraines six months earlier. My vision is very good (20/10 for distance, in fact) and my near vision, while no longer perfect, has not eroded to the point where reading glasses are usually prescribed, but the doctor suggested that I get a pair of glasses with a very mild prescription, just enough to give my eyes a break so they wouldn't have to strain at all. There was the tradeoff of not being able to wear my sunglasses while wearing the reading glasses, but for working on the computer and reading, the prescription lenses definitely made a positive difference.

My mother, who is always researching more ideas on living with chronic migraines and how to make me more comfortable, read about the possible benefits of red lenses for migraine sufferers in a book that mentioned, almost in passing, that a Japanese study had found them therapeutic. So off I went to the mall to inquire at the various glasses stores to see if they knew where I could find red lenses and was very pleased to discover that at the store where my parents got their glasses, the salesman said, when asked about red lenses, "Oh, like for migraines?" It turns out he had another customer that had been ordering red lenses for years and he knew just the place to get them. So that's how I ended up with my ic! berlin "garri k." frames with "currant" colored lenses. They were very expensive (though I did get to apply my insurance's eyeglasses allowance toward them because they were for therapeutic purposes), but amazingly comfortable! The super lightweight frames weigh just 20 grams, oh-so-gently grip the head instead of wrapping around the ears to stay on, and the wraparound lenses cover all areas of my vision with no gaps. Unlike any other frame I've worn, they've never once felt uncomfortable or caused a headache because of the way they fit or their weight on my head. And I loved the red lenses! They were extremely helpful for combating 
light sensitivity and I instantly stopped wearing my reading glasses except for by the light of the 40-watt bulb in my bedside lamp because the light-sensitivity reduction trumped the benefits of the prescription. I was finally able to look at the computer screen for more than fifteen minutes at a time and was less likely to get an instant migraine if I accidentally caught the glaring reflection of sunlight off the kitchen faucet. I also liked that they looked cool: I got compliments on them all the time! They didn't look like a therapeutic lens and the tint was light enough that I could wear them indoors. While they did distort colors somewhat, I quickly adapted to the way the world looked, though I would look over them when editing photos to make sure I got the color right!

At the same time that I got my red glasses, I also bought a pair of polarized lenses in an oversized frame for wearing outside. Smoky gray in color with a anti-reflective coating on the back (to eliminate those nasty something-bright-behind-you-reflected-on-the-inside-of-your-lenses surprises), I wore these any time I rode in the car or went outside for more than a few minutes. Between the red lenses and these sunglasses, I was better able to cope with the bright and shiny world. Unfortunately, after last summer's head injury, my light sensitivity increased. My sensitivity to light WITH the glasses became comparable to what my light sensitivity had been like WITHOUT the glasses prior to the concussion. Still, it was much better to have the glasses than not!

In the fall of 2011, I saw a vision therapy specialist my mother has worked with on scientific studies. She uncovered all kinds of interesting information, such as the fact that while my vision is more acute than the average person's, my ability to change the depth of my focus is extremely clunky. (From time to time, especially if my eyes are tired, my eyes will get "stuck" and not be able to refocus or, even more disconcerting, one eye will get stuck and the other will not.) I also have unusually active and acute peripheral vision, a much-smaller-than-average blind spot, and my eyes are constantly roving my environment. It validated my sense that I see more than most people (it's not just that I notice more, I actually SEE more). That means my sharp, roving eyes are having to refocus all the time. No wonder they get tired! She said that eventually she'll give me some therapeutic exercises to help me better ignore what's going on in my peripheral vision and focus more smoothly on what's in front of me, but we decided that the first thing we wanted to tackle was determining that the red lenses were the best tint. I'd been wanting to get a prescription pair of tinted lenses, but when she suggested that I might want to explore other tints, I jumped on board. She loaned me a spotlight and glass discs in various colors to place over the light in order to test them. The colors included red, purple, green, a couple of blues, gray, yellow, and amber. I discovered that purple made me really sick and that blues and green were problematic, too. The best out of the options was amber. I first tested this conclusion with a very orangey-amber pair of swim
goggles, but they kept fogging up. Then my mom found a $10 pair of amber-brown aviators and I wore those around for several months. They were indeed better than my red glasses and I found that I could wear them both inside the house and out, but they were quite uncomfortable to wear after a couple of hours, so I used my red glasses when I was on the computer. The amber lenses really distorted colors in a way I didn't like, but seeing life with distorted colors was better than wincing against the light of daily life. When I saw the eye doctor next, I reported my findings, but she had an even better idea: an optometrist up north had a sophisticated new type of lenses, so to get the very best tint, I ought to go see him.

It looks like a fairly standard sunglasses tint, but it's actually carefully formulated.

So earlier this summer, I got tested for the best lens tint offered by ChromaGen for my particular brain. ChromaGen lenses are most often used for those suffering from dyslexia. (There is also a different set of ChromaGen tints that correct color blindness.) In basic layman's terms, the tints, very specifically selected to correspond to certain wavelengths, slow down activity in the brain. Each eye is different, too, so some individuals benefit from having a different tinted lens for each eye. We found that one eye was very particular about the tint it preferred and the other eye liked both that tint and another, so I went with the same tint in both lenses. The setting sun came out of the clouds while I was there and so I was able to compare one of the hardest types of light for me to manage through my red glasses, the amber aviators, and then the selected ChromaGen tint. The ChromaGen tint was better than either of those lenses, so we decided to go with it. They were able to put the new lenses in my beloved ic! berlin frames, so I rather nervously surrendered them for the three weeks it would take to put the ChromaGen lenses in the frames. The ChromaGen testing and lenses were very expensive (and while it has been approved by the FDA, it is not yet covered by insurance), but I'm glad to report that my lenses are making a difference.

There was an adjustment period. Like a prescription lens, I had to work up to wearing them full time, especially while riding in the car. Since I've started wearing them full time, though, I think I've been better. They help a lot with bright lights, to the point where I can actually look at my computer monitor without recoiling in pain if the contrast is any higher than zero and the other night, while riding in the car after dark for the first time since I got them, I found I was able to tolerate the sight of the headlights of oncoming cars! This is huge, since in the past I had found being in the car at night was best dealt with by wearing my dark sunglasses, a sweatshirt with a large hood pulled low over my head, and keeping my eyes closed. (Not surprisingly, I avoided going out after dark whenever possible, but my weekly physical therapy appointment lets out after dark in the winter.) I also think I've just been a little bit better overall in a way that's hard to define, other than perhaps to say that my mind has been clearer more of the time. I also feel like it was easier for my eyes to recover after I spent several hours working in Photoshop recently. Also, they don't distort colors. I really like that! I did have to adjust to the fact that they are quite shiny on the back and an anti-reflective coating can't be applied without destroying the benefit of the tint and I still haven't gotten them adjusted to fit my face quite right, but as long as I don't have something really shiny directly behind me, I'm okay. And thanks to the tint, it's easier for me to face windows or lamps than it used to be! I still get migraines and my eyes still get tired and I'm still sensitive to light, but I would say that the glasses are making a difference. The next step will be to get a second pair of ChromaGen lenses with a prescription to use while I'm on the computer. I haven't decided if I should get them in my existing reading glasses frames or get new frames altogether.

The six pairs of lenses that have helped shield me from the light during 34 months of daily migraines.

My perpetual light sensitivity continues to be a daily and debilitating problem, but having good lenses makes many of the small comforts of my life--my digital photography, connecting with friends via the internet, watching shows when it's too difficult for me to read--possible. I highly recommend that sufferers of light sensitivity experiment with various tints (you can compare them easily enough with $10 sunglasses, like I did when I was testing out amber lenses) to see which works best for your eyes and then investing in a lightweight pair of frames with oversized, polarized lenses in the preferred tint. For those who have serious sensitivity issues, access to a trained practitioner, and an extra $1500 lying around, I do recommend the ChromaGen lenses. Oh, and always wear your shades like you're doing it because you're fabulous and it's part of your look, not because they're therapeutic!

And on that note, here's a song that frequently gets stuck in my head in the evenings...


  1. Awesome! I shared the link on the Createability Team FB Page! Love, Cap'n Beth

  2. Good day! Does the frequency of updates of your domain depend on specific issues or you work on articles when you have a special mood or spare time? Thanks in advance for your answer.

  3. What does one wear for those nasty fluorescent lights whose invisible flickering causes migraines?