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Neurology Problems That Cause Photophobia

written by: AngelicaMD • edited by: dianahardin • updated: 5/24/2011

Photophobia is an unusual sensitivity to and aversion of the eyes to bright light. It is often a symptom of another condition or local eye problem. It can also be a side effect of drug intake. Find out more about photophobia and when it may be related to neurology problems.

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    What is Photophobia?

    Unusual eye sensitivity to bright light that causes discomfort is known as photophobia. This is a common condition, but if severe, discomfort may occur even in relatively low light. The affected individual will commonly react by looking away from the light source, squinting and showing an aversion to light.

    Photophobia is usually a symptom of an accompanying condition, such as eye problems or other diseases that may be neurologic in nature. In any case of photophobia, the iris of the eye which controls widening and narrowing of the opening in reaction to the presence of light is unable to regulate the entry of light.

    There are many possible causes of the eyes’ sensitivity to light, and these include certain drugs that the patient may be taking, local injury to the eyes and even neurologic conditions.

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    Neurology Problems that Cause Photophobia

    The most common neurology problems that can cause increased sensitivity to light are migraine and meningitis. These conditions involving the brain or the central nervous system may also affect the eyes, which are part of the neurosensory system.

    Photophobia Associated with Migraine

    Migraines are chronic headaches that have different manifestations. Symptoms of migraine that are associated with the eyes include photophobia and visual auras. Having a visual aura or seeing flashes of light and zig-zagging patterns is to be distinguished from increased sensitivity to light; however, they can both be experienced by a person having migraines. These may also be accompanied by other symptoms, like nausea and numbness. Since these are all manifestations of a neurologic problem, one must seek medical consultation, especially if these warning signs are experienced:

    • Seizures
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Stiff neck
    • Fever
    • Painful eye or ear
    • Difficulty or loss of speech

    These are signs that may indicate a more serious neurologic problem, for which medications and probable hospitalization are more helpful.

    Treatment for migraines with photosensitivity includes taking over-the-counter analgesics, like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve). Prescription drugs for more severe migraines are also available, under medical advice.

    Photophobia Associated with Meningitis

    Inflammation of the meninges or the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord is called meningitis. This condition is usually caused by a viral, bacterial or fungal infection. The hallmark signs of meningitis are headaches, fever and stiffness of the neck. Together with these, other symptoms like photophobia, nausea, seizures and sleepiness may be also be present. In its initial stages, symptoms of meningitis may be mistaken for flu or influenza.

    Photophobia Associated with Post-Concussion Syndrome

    A person who experiences a traumatic blow to the head may suffer from a mild brain injury called a concussion. He may or may not lose consciousness, but within days after the trauma, he may have symptoms like headaches, dizziness, fatigue, loss of concentration or memory and light sensitivity. This is a syndrome that may take months to resolve, but treatment is geared toward relieving symptoms. People experiencing these symptoms and amnesia or confusion should seek medical help immediately.

    It is important to remember that photophobia with other neurologic symptoms, like severe headaches, fever and seizures, are strong indications to seek medical advice, because of the possibility of brain pathology.

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