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Report: Screen Time and Neurological Symptoms Rising Due to COVID-19

How has the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic impacted people with headache and migraine disorders? A new report from TheraSpecs® Company suggests that the changes and disruptions to daily life brought on by COVID-19 have not been particularly kind to those with neurological conditions. In fact, symptoms like head pain, photophobia, and neck pain are among the issues that seem to be occurring more regularly during this time—in large part due to a staggering rise in screen time and exposure to the triggers that come along with it. Let’s take a closer look at what the report shows.

TheraSpecs, which creates therapeutic glasses for migraine and light sensitivity, surveyed hundreds of people who self-identified as having a neurological disorder, and more than 75% of respondents acknowledged that their use of digital devices has increased during the pandemic. For the vast majority, it has not only gone up but surged by at least 3 hours per day; and nearly one-third (31%) are exposed to their screens an additional 5+ hours every single day. This is consistent with broader evidence that screen time has soared as more and more of us are sheltering in place and relying on our devices for professional use and social connection.

This rise in screen use can be inherently dangerous for people with migraine and headache conditions for a variety of reasons. For example, they are far more likely to have a lower threshold for bright light than a person without migraine, thus making screen brightness a threat to bringing on an attack.1 Prolonged access to devices also increases the risk for ocular complications, such as eye strain or dry eyes, both of which have been shown to have a more serious effect on people with neurological disorders.2 In addition, social media use and streaming video content can aggravate those with motion sensitivities—also shown to disproportionately affect migraine and vestibular conditions.3

Unfortunately, this has resulted in more headaches and migraine attacks during the pandemic for many. In fact, 64% of respondents who reported an increase in screen time were dealing with a corresponding rise in symptoms like headache pain, light sensitivity, and dizziness. And the overwhelming majority directly linked their change in symptoms to screen-related exposure.

The TheraSpecs team also spoke with headache specialists and neurologists from all over the United States, who described their encounters with patients during the pandemic.

“These professionals have been keeping a pulse on the experiences of their headache and migraine patients during this time,” said Greg Bullock, TheraSpecs spokesperson and author of the report. “They repeatedly told us that those who had more screen time were dealing with a greater frequency of attacks too, particularly if they were already sensitive to light.”

Additionally, other exacerbating factors are believed to be causing these changes. Headache specialist Dr. Huma Sheikh of NY Neurology Medicine described higher stress levels stemming from the “stay at home” orders that many states have put into place during the outbreak. These orders have complicated work and family routines, placing an additional burden on patients.

Disruptions in sleep and dietary modifications have also been reported to compound headache and migraine symptoms, according to the report.

So what can people do in order to combat the negative effects of rising screen time? Leading experts in the headache and migraine field have recently recommended FL-41 glasses for their effectiveness in blocking blue light from screens; they also remind patients to take regular eye breaks throughout the day.4 Others emphasize the importance of having a proper home workstation that accommodates good interior lighting and appropriate back and neck positioning. The TheraSpecs team also suggests trying different apps and features that device manufacturers have added for accessibility, such as dark mode. While they may not work for everyone, they could make a noticeable difference for some.

Still, the most important starting point is to understand how your screen time has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and if it is affecting your health.

“We continue to invest in helping people find ways to use their devices as safe and pain-free as possible,” Bullock said. “The first step toward achieving that goal is to highlight how abrupt changes in our everyday lives, like those brought on by COVID-19, ultimately impact our brain health. As more people recognize the contribution that screen exposure has on their symptoms, hopefully, they will be able to take mitigating steps to reduce the physical burden.”

Read the full report here.

Additional references:

1Vanagaite J, Pareja JA, Støren O, White LR, Sand T, Stovner LJ. Light-induced discomfort and pain in migraine. Cephalalgia. 17(7), 733-741.

2Ismail OM, Poole ZB, Bierly SL, et al. Association Between Dry Eye Disease and Migraine Headaches in a Large Population-Based Study. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2019;137(5):532‐536. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2019.0170.

3Furman JM, Marcus DA. Migraine and motion sensitivity. Continuum (Minneap Minn). 2012;18(5 Neuro-otology):1102‐1117. doi:10.1212/01.CON.0000421621.18407.96.

4Abramson A. Why You Might Be Experiencing More Headaches in Quarantine. Allure. Published April 2020. Accessed on May 11, 2020 from https://www.allure.com/story/covid-19-quarantine-eye-strain-headache-screens

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