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Light Sensitivity After Head Injury: 5 Effective Ways to Overcome Photophobia

Man holding head squinting in bright sunlight because he has light sensitivity after brain injury

Light sensitivity is a common problem after a head injury. However, sometimes the symptoms of light sensitivity can be hard to recognize.

Today’s article will help you identify the causes and symptoms of light sensitivity and show you some of the best ways to cope with it.

Let’s get started.

Causes of Light Sensitivity After Head Injury

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is perhaps the most common symptom of mild traumatic brain injury. It mainly occurs after damage to the thalamus.

The thalamus filters visual information and sends that data to different brain regions. After a head injury, blood vessels that deliver oxygen to the thalamus can become damaged and therefore starve the thalamus of nutrients.

If this happens, the thalamus can no longer filter your vision, causing a visual overload. This explains why dark rooms, which have less visual information, are often more tolerable for head injury patients than bright rooms.

However, damage to the thalamus is not the only cause of light sensitivity. Other areas of the brain that also play a role include the:

  • Autonomic nervous system. The ANS governs most of your body’s autonomic processes, including pupil dilation. If an injury disrupts it, your pupils may dilate more than usual, which will cause light sensitivity.
  • Superior colliculus. This part of the brain keeps you oriented in space. It also has some control over the eye muscles. If it malfunctions, it can make a person’s vision more sensitive.
  • Vestibular system. If a head injury damages the inner ear, the brain will compensate by boosting vision sensitivity. This helps the body stay balanced. However, the increased sensitivity uses more resources which, as a result, can make you feel overwhelmed.

After a head injury, a person will usually have a combination of these problems. Fortunately, it is possible to treat most of these causes.

Symptoms of Light Sensitivity After Head Injury

woman rubbing her temples because she has light sensitivity after head injury

The most common symptoms of light sensitivity after head injury include:

  • Headaches
  • Eyestrain
  • Eye pain
  • Vision fatigue
  • Inability to tolerate bright lights.

There are also other, more indirect symptoms of light sensitivity that many people overlook, such as:

  • Vertigo
  • Cognitive fatigue
  • Problems multitasking

These occur because, after a head injury, your brain uses nearly all of its resources to process bright light. Therefore, it has nothing left for other activities. This leads to dizziness and fatigue.

Treating Light Sensitivity After Head Injury

Light sensitivity usually resolves on its own after a few weeks. If it doesn’t, you most likely have a condition called post-concussion syndrome. Be sure to work closely with your doctor.

To eliminate light sensitivity after a head injury then, you must address your post-concussion syndrome. The following are a few ways to do this:

1. Vestibular therapy

woman practicing vestibular therapy with exercise instructor to help her overcome light sensitivity after head injury

As we mentioned above, when your vestibular system becomes damaged, your brain will compensate by increasing vision sensitivity. Therefore, healing your vestibular system may decrease your photophobia.

You can accomplish this through vestibular therapy exercises. These exercises involve specialized head movements that stimulate your balance.

Some sample exercises you can try include:

  • Sit or lie on your bed. Move eyes up and down, then left and right. Do this 10 times.
  • Bend neck forward and backward, then turn from left to right. Do 10 times.
  • While standing, throw a ball from one hand to the other above eye level.

Do not worry if you feel dizzy while doing any of these exercises. However, if the dizziness grows too intense, stop immediately and rest.

2. Gaze stabilization exercises

Once again, if a head injury affects your vision, it can make you more sensitive to light. Strengthening your eye muscles through vision therapy may help reduce strain on your eyes.

Gaze stabilization exercises can help you with this. Therapists use these exercises to help patients focus on a stationary object while moving.

Some gaze stabilization exercises include:

  • Looking straight ahead and focusing on a letter without moving
  • Turning your head side to side, while keeping your eyes focused on the target letter

Stay seated while doing these exercises. Do them for whatever length of time possible without bringing on too severe of symptoms.

3. Flavonoids

man holding pile of blueberries in a white cloth

Another great treatment for post-concussion syndrome is a type of food called flavonoids.

Flavonoids are rich in antioxidants and stimulate BDNF, both of which significantly aid the brain’s healing process.

As your brain heals, it can handle more sensory information at one time. This will reduce your sensitivity to light.

Most brightly colored foods contain flavonoids, including:

  • Blueberries
  • Cranberries
  • Red kale
  • Strawberries

The more antioxidants you consume, the more you will reduce the inflammation in your brain. Over time, this will alleviate your photophobia symptoms.

4. Gentle Exercise

New research shows that aerobic exercise can drastically reduce post-concussion syndrome symptoms, including light sensitivity. Some other benefits of exercise include:

  • Increased blood flow to your brain. When you practice aerobic exercise, it improves your cardiovascular function, which increases blood flow to your brain. This boosts overall brain function, making it easier for your brain to process light.
  • More neurotransmitters. Scientists have found that regular physical exercise boosts the number of neurotransmitters in your brain. This increase helps your brain process information faster, which reduces light sensitivity

Although exercise is helpful, don’t overdo it. If it causes your symptoms to worsen, then continue resting and try some other treatments instead.

5. Protect your eyes

point of view shot of person holding sunglasses in front of their face

While the above treatments should reduce your sensitivity to light, they will not cure you instantly. Until then, you must protect your eyes.

The following are a few effective ways to accomplish this:

  • Wear sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses outside can help reduce strain on your eyes. However, try not to wear them often when indoors. To recover, you must slowly increase your light tolerance, and wearing sunglasses indoors will make that process more difficult.
  • Limit screen time. Try to limit the amount of time you spend in front of your computer or phone. Otherwise, they will quickly overload your brain. If you must use a screen for work, wear blue light-filtering glasses, which can lessen headaches.
  • Colored glasses. Glasses with colored lenses reduce the amount of visual input your eyes receive. This can make things easier on your brain while you work. Eventually, though, you should start using them less often to make a full recovery.

Finally, try to get enough sleep. The more sleep you get, the faster your brain will heal. This means you should stop using screens at least an hour before bed.

Light Sensitivity and Brain Injury

Light sensitivity after a head injury can be frustrating and painful. Most cases will fade on their own, but some may require a little extra help.

By understanding the sources of light sensitivity, you can better equip yourself to treat it.

We hope this article helps you move forward on your recovery from the symptoms of head injury.

Featured image: ©iStock/coffeekai

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