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Light on Photophobia: sensitivity to light & Chinese medicine

woman covering her eyes from the sun

Photophobia, also called light sensitivity or photosensitivity is a very common yet debilitating symptom seen in many ophthalmic and neurological disorders.

The two most common causes of photophobia are migraines and blepharospasm (a movement disorder that causes frequent blinking).

Dry eyes can also complicate chronic photophobia. Some emotional disorders such as anxiety are also related to light sensitivity.

What is photophobia ?

Have you ever felt that he light is “too bright”? It could mean that there is an increase in the sense of light. Or you might complain of pain caused by the light. Everyone has some level of light sensitivity, like when we move from a dark room into the sunshine. That light sensitivity and discomfort is usually very short. However, some people feel that sense of pain and brightness all the time, and some find that even normal light causes pain or discomfort.

Technically, photophobia is not an eye disease. Rather, it is a symptom of another condition.

Other conditions which can cause it include

  • uveitis

  • thinning of the retina or detached retina

  • corneal abrasion

  • meningitis or encephalitis

  • contact lens irritations

  • refractive surgery

  • sunburn

  • diabetes

Some medications can also increase photosensitivity

  • antibiotics such as doxycycline and tetracycline

  • diuretics such as furosemide

  • anti-malarial drugs such as quinine

  • antihistamines

  • blood pressure medications

Light sensitivity and connection with migraines

man hiding from the sun

Nearly 80% of people who have migraines are photosensitive.

Similarly, there is a connection between blepharospasm (eyelid spasm) and light sensitivity, with 80–95% of these patients reporting some level of discomfort.

It appears that a "pain pathway" starts from the front ganglion cells to the optic nerve. It is not the same as the path of light. It produces pain, not images.

Curiously, because of the nerve pathway people who are blind can suffer from light sensitivity.

Liver, Heat, Wind and Yin Deficiency

To understand whether someone's photophobia might be caused by a pattern or another,

your acupuncturist will look for other signs and symptoms. Often times the Liver is involved .

  • If photophobia is caused by Liver Yin Deficiency, patients also experience symptoms such as dizziness, numbness in the limbs, insomnia and blurred vision.

  • Heat patterns come with red eyes or painful eyes, thirst, a redder complexion and a faster pulse

  • In wind related patterns, patients will also tear easily when exposed to wind

Herbs and supplements that can help with photophobia

Herbs are always prescribed after an in depth consultation to chose the most beneficial combination just for you. Rather than addressing just the photophobia, they will balance the whole body.

abalone shell
  • Abalone Shell 石决明

Used in cases of "Liver Heat" causing visual problems with photophobia, pterygium, nebulae, cataracts or other superficial visual obstruction, red eyes and blurred vision

  • Cassia Seeds 决明子

Used for red, swollen and painful eyes from "Liver Heat" or "Wind-Heat in the Liver channel"with photosensivity, night blindness, and easy tearing in the Wind

  • Pale Butterfly Bush Flower 密蒙花

It can be used for either Excess or Deficiency patterns that present Red, swollen, painful eyes, excessive tearing, superficial visual obstruction, cataracts or photophobia, and sensitivity to glare

  • Borneol 冰片

Drains Fire, resolves toxicity, clears the eyes and removes superficial visual obstructions, photophobia and excessive tearing

  • Carotenoids

See our article here for learning more about beneficial nutrients for eye health.

A study by Stringham and Hammond, published in the Journal of Food Science has shown that visual performance improves and light sensitivity decreases in subjects taking carotenoids (10 mg lutein and 2 mg zeaxanthin) per day.*

Tinted lenses and other tips

Tinted lenses, in particular FL-41 tint, and blue-blocking lenses, and red lenses have been reported to decrease and improve light sensitivity. These can be obtained without a prescription by talking with your optometrist. Sunglasses outside frequently help with light sensitivity in the sun.

woman wearing sunglasses
  • Outdoors, wear polarized sunglasses.

  • A hat or cap can also provide shade for your eyes.

  • Avoid fluorescent lighting at home. Fluorescent lights should be replaced with incandescent bulbs or warm white LEDs.

  • Bring in as much natural light as you can, which is usually less problematic for people with photophobia than artificial light.

  • Install dimmers to control indoor lighting.

  • Adjust the settings on your TV, computer, phone and other devices to more comfortable hues and brightness levels.

  • Do NOT wear sunglasses indoors. Though it might bring momentary relief, doing this over the long term can dark-adapt your eyes and actually make your photophobia worse.

And talk to your acupuncturist !



Stringham JM, Bovier ER, Wong JC, Hammond BR (2010). “The influence of dietary lutein and zeaxanthin on visual performance”. J. Food Sci. 75 (1): R24–9. doi:10.1111/j.1750-3841.2009.01447.x. PMID 20492192


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