Ask the Experts

Bright Lights, Big City

I get bad headaches sometimes when I go to lecture halls. I really believe it’s the bright lights. Does this make any sense?

Your question is shared by many students, because the college lifestyle often increases the risk for headaches. Researchers claim that headaches and their causes is an understudied and overlooked subject where students are involved. Your question does make a lot of sense, so let us find out why.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7-4% of the world’s adult population experience headaches on 15 or more days every month. Statistics show that students get more headaches than adults; around 40% of them get one at least every couple of months, compared to only 12% of adults. College life is considered a major source of headaches as it triggers the attack. There are numerous factors that could set off the pain including lack of sleep, late nights, early mornings, poor diet, stress over tests or assignments, lack of exercise, change in routine, and even bright lights.

For many students, severe headaches can be debilitating and can even affect academic performance. The term headache is a broad one and can be broken down into several types with ranging severity. A migraine is different to a headache, it has different triggers. Headaches are symptomatic, usually triggered by something that occurs such as stress or staring at a computer screen for too long.

Computer simulations, now emerging as 360 photos and videos, need the user to become accustomed to the new virtual reality, says young ticketing company Rukkus. The brain goes into a virtual-reality mode and immediately adjusts to the new sensations. While it can initially be a trigger for some, this is one the user quickly learns to overcome.

Migraines are part of a person’s neurological genetic makeup; around 75% of migraine symptoms are inherited. Usually migraines do not have the same external triggers as headaches and they are generally far more excruciating. Due to hormonal influences, women are twice as likely to suffer from migraines as men. They are recurrent, lifetime disorders and can vary in frequency and severity, with nausea being a primary symptom. Other types of headaches include your common garden variety or a tension-type headache which most people get from time to time. A medication overuse headache is caused when you take too many pills to try and alleviate the headache you have. Then you have a cluster headache, which is frequently recurring, often several times per day, though not as common as the tension headache.

Stress is by far the leading cause of headaches for college students. Sinus infections and respiratory disorders can also cause them, as can sleep deprivation, which is a common factor in college life. Cramming all night long for a test the next day will give anyone a headache. It is possible for bright lights to cause a headache; people that are light sensitive, or photophobic, generally suffer from these.

There are a number of steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of getting headaches. Diet plays a big part so try to eat healthier, avoid fast food, too much caffeine, and foods with a lot of additives, artificial sweeteners, or MSG (monosodium glutamate). It may be obvious but alcohol will cause a headache as will the resultant dehydration that comes with overdoing it.

The usual remedy advice applies: get more regular sleep, eat a healthy diet, drink lots to stay hydrated, and try to alleviate stress. Be more proactive and try to identify the triggers for your headaches; if they persist you should contact student health services.

A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache… Catherine the Great.

John Regan is a former Director of Sales for equity research.