Members of the military as well as Veterans face a greater risk for traumatic brain injury (TBI), concussion (also known as mild TBI), and post-concussion syndrome as a direct result of their service, according to a large body of research. In fact, first-time TBI diagnoses of active-duty military members rose every year from 2000 to 2012, with the majority of those being listed as concussion according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.
Traumatic brain injuries, mild or otherwise, can lead to additional complications for many Veterans, including ongoing physical disabilities related to chronic migraine, headache disorders and associated vision or neurological problems. Painful light sensitivity, or photophobia, is another of these debilitating symptoms of TBI and post-concussion syndrome. In soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, 77 percent complained of light sensitivity associated with blast-related TBI; it is the most common of many reported visual complications experienced by post-war Veterans. Studies have also shown that post-concussion light sensitivity can last for weeks or months after the initial injury, and in some cases it never fully recedes. In addition, it can have a significant impact on a person’s daily life—such as reducing one’s ability to participate in activities or impairing performance in the workplace.
Types of light that can cause pain
Researchers still do not have a firm grasp on what causes light sensitivity in people with traumatic brain injury, but they do have an idea of the types and characteristics of light that can be problematic. These include:
- Bright, intense light
- Blue light (specifically wavelengths in around 480nm)
- Fluorescent lighting
- Glare and other repetitive light patterns
It is important to note that any light can cause pain for a hyperreactive brain—even lower levels of light, such as that which is produced by an overcast day—due to heightened pain responses to external stimuli. However, the types mentioned above are especially troublesome.
Treatment for photophobia and light sensitivity
The most important action for Veterans to take is to see a doctor or specialist and ensure proper diagnosis of any underlying condition, whether it is TBI, migraine or another neurological disorder. This can help rule out a more serious health issue that is causing painful photophobic reactions as well as identify strategies for addressing the condition.
Currently, there is no medication that can directly treat light sensitivity. As a result, it is often recommended that Veterans identify and minimize the effect of light-specific triggers in order to prevent symptoms from manifesting. Unfortunately, people with light sensitive eyes commonly choose to wear sunglasses indoors, but doctors do not endorse this behavior because photophobia can actually worsen over time as a result; this is a process known as “dark adaptation.”
Instead, a more effective treatment is the use of special photophobia glasses that are precision-tinted with FL-41. This tint filters the most painful wavelengths of light that are abundantly present in everyday light sources such as fluorescent lighting, sunlight, and computer and mobile device screens. In addition, research has shown these tinted lenses not only lessen painful photophobia but also can reduce overall headache and migraine frequency—another common side effect of TBI and concussion for Veterans—by as much as 74 percent.
Veterans who are eligible for VA benefits should also inquire with their doctor or neurologist as tinted glasses that treat photophobia are often covered through the VA as a “low vision device” in the category of sensory aids. Durable goods are typically purchased through the VA Rehabilitation and Prosthetics Services department and/or its local representative(s).
More tips for managing TBI-Related light sensitivity
There are numerous other behavioral suggestions for managing light sensitivity, and these might include: reducing amount of blue light exposure by taking frequent eye breaks from computer or mobile devices and avoiding extended usage before bed; providing more natural light and/or alternatives to fluorescents for the office or home environment; wearing dark and polarized sunglasses and a hat outside on bright, sunny days; using eye drops to keep your eyes well lubricated and reduce chances of developing temporary eyestrain or dry eye, both of which can worsen light sensitivity. All of these can be valuable in a Veteran’s efforts to diminish the negative impact of harmful light.
Greg Bullock is passionate about supporting people who have light sensitivity associated with chronic conditions such as migraine, post-concussion syndrome, and TBI. He is currently the marketing manager at TheraSpecs, which creates migraine glasses for people with the debilitating headache disorder. His family also has a rich history of service in the Air Force for more than a half century.