Health

Can Simon Cowell’s £20 orange specs really beat migraines?

At less than £20 a pair, Simon Cowell’s orange-tinted sunglasses are likely to be one of the cheapest fashion accessories he has ever purchased.

Yet the pop-industry icon has rarely been seen in public without them since they first made an appearance during a recording of America’s Got Talent last autumn.

And with good reason – Cowell insists the spectacles, which he is said to have bought online for just £19.98, help him combat the crippling migraines that have apparently affected him for many years.

Although the TV personality last week missed a couple of auditions during filming of Britain’s Got Talent – due to the sudden onset of a painful migraine – he insists the spectacles are still a big help.

One friend told reporters: ‘He swears by them and says they make a huge difference.’

Simon Cowell insists the orange spectacles, which he is said to have bought online for just £19.98, help him combat the crippling migraines that have affected him for many years

Cowell with fellow America's Got Talent judges Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Mel B and presenter Terry Crews

Cowell with fellow America’s Got Talent judges Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Mel B and presenter Terry Crews

But can a cheap pair of brightly-coloured shades really provide a simple solution for a condition that affects an estimated seven million people in the UK?

Migraine is a complex neurological disorder which can run in families but is equally likely to affect people at random.

The main symptom is an intense, often one-sided headache that can be so agonising it leaves those affected largely incapacitated.

In around 80 per cent of cases, it also triggers nausea and increased sensitivity to light or sound.

Such is the effect of light sensitivity (known as photophobia) that some patients have to take to a darkened room for hours – sometimes days – at a time until the attack passes.

Women are three times as likely to get migraines as men, possibly as attacks are linked to the female hormone oestrogen, which is thought to increase brain cells’ sensitivity to pain.

Most patients rely on painkillers, or prescription drugs called triptans which can shorten the length of attacks.

And in the last few years, a new class of medicines – the first big breakthrough in migraine treatment in around 30 years – has emerged to prevent migraines in the first place.

Called CGRP inhibitors, these drugs – which can either be injected into the arm once a month or taken as a melt-in-the-mouth wafer every few days – can halve the number of attacks. They work by blocking the effects of a chemical, called calcitonin gene-related peptide, responsible for triggering migraines (the main ones are erenumab, galcanezumab and fremanezumab).

But the use of these new drugs on the NHS is strictly limited to the most severe cases – mostly people who have at least four attacks a month and have failed to improve on at least three other drugs.

Meanwhile avoiding triggers – light is one of the most common – can help prevent a migraine from occurring at all.

So could tinted spectacles – which can range from a mere £20 up to £300 a pair – be a good investment for those affected by migraines and who find lights bothersome?

‘I can remember doing some research on light exposure in migraine about 25 years ago,’ says Dr Andy Dowson, clinical lead for East Kent NHS headache service.

The pop-industry icon has rarely been seen in public without them since they first made an appearance during a recording of America’s Got Talent last autumn

The pop-industry icon has rarely been seen in public without them since they first made an appearance during a recording of America’s Got Talent last autumn

Blocking red or blue light by wearing spectacles coated with chemicals that stop them reaching the eye has been shown to help sufferers of migraines

Blocking red or blue light by wearing spectacles coated with chemicals that stop them reaching the eye has been shown to help sufferers of migraines

‘Back then, we found migraine attacks were much more likely when sufferers were exposed to light in the red and blue wave-lengths than those in yellow or green, for example.’

All light is made up of a spectrum of colours, each with different wavelengths.

At one end of the spectrum is blue and purple – which have the shortest wavelengths – and at the other is red and orange, which have the longest wavelengths.

Several studies have found that light at either ends of the spectrum – e.g. red and blue – are more likely to trigger migraines than mid-spectrum colours such as green or yellow. It’s not known why but certain wavelengths appear to heighten sensitivity to pain in migraine sufferers.

Blocking red or blue light by wearing spectacles coated with chemicals that stop them reaching the eye has been shown to help.

‘Some people in the research I did reported that the frequency of attacks was reduced by half to three-quarters when they regularly wore tinted glasses that blocked out much of the red and blue light,’ says Dr Dowson.

But he says it’s not necessarily the colour of the lens that counts but the chemical coating that filters out the harmful light.

The main coating, called FL-41, was first tested by scientists from Birmingham University back in the early nineties.

In their study, 20 children with migraine (who were photosensitive) were given spectacles coated with the FL-41 for four months – the research showed that the average number of painful attacks they suffered dropped from 6.2 per month to just 1.6.

Dr Dowson says tinted specs may be more in demand than ever before, and not because of the Cowell factor.

Instead, some evidence suggests modern lighting is making migraines worse – or at least more frequent – for some people.

In 2016, the European Union banned the public use of old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs due to their energy inefficiency.

They have been replaced, mostly, by LED – or light-emitting diode – bulbs which run on a fraction of the energy.

These now illuminate everything from offices and shops to computer screens, smartphones and vehicle headlights.

But LED light tends to be much richer in blue light – one of the more common migraine triggers – than old-style incandescent bulbs, says Dr Dowson. In fact, the whiter the light the more blue light it contains.

‘Older bulbs had a more even distribution of light across the whole spectrum of colours,’ he says.

‘But the EU made them illegal in 2016 and they were eventually phased out [from public use] a few years later.

‘Ten years ago, I was part of a group which lobbied the EU Commission to try and persuade it that some people were very sensitive to these lights and should be able to carry on buying incandescent bulbs for home use.

‘One lady I knew was virtually housebound because everywhere she went there were LED lights that would trigger her migraines.’

The EU agreed incandescent bulbs could still be bought for private use, though they are much harder to get hold of now.

However, blue light emission is not the only issue with LED lights.

They also create a flicker effect – unnoticeable to the human eye – which can trigger migraines and headaches in some people, says Dr Dowson.

This effect is a well-recognised problem. Some migraine sufferers can be set off by light flickering through trees, or the invisible flickering of a computer screen. In both cases, the visual part of the brain becomes overexcited by this effect, paving the way for a migraine attack.

Dr Dowson says: ‘LED lights can also flicker, which may be a factor in migraine attacks. That might be one reason Simon Cowell was suddenly unwell.’

The music industry guru has spoken in the past about how spending hours at a time under bright studio lights can increase the chances of a migraine attack.

Manufacturers of some tinted spectacles claim they also protect against the flicker effect, though there is little published research to back this up.

So are Simon Cowell-like glasses worth the money?

Dr Dowson says there is no harm in trying a cheap pair if light is a trigger – and Dr Mark Weatherall, consultant neurologist at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire agrees.

The tinted spectacles can range from a mere £20 up to £300 a pair

The tinted spectacles can range from a mere £20 up to £300 a pair 

The main symptom of a migraine is an intense, often one-sided headache that can be so agonising it leaves those affected largely incapacitated

The main symptom of a migraine is an intense, often one-sided headache that can be so agonising it leaves those affected largely incapacitated

‘Around 80 per cent of migraines are light sensitive, so wearing them during an attack can be especially helpful.

‘And some people find wearing them all the time is beneficial as light can also be a trigger for a migraine.’

While there are no obvious reports of any adverse effects from the glasses, the charity Migraine Trust, however, is not convinced of their benefit.

It states on its website: ‘There are various types of glasses advertised to help with migraine and protect your eyes from certain types of light.

‘But there is not enough high-quality scientific evidence for us to know whether these glasses help or not, so we cannot recommend them.’

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