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Light & Noise Sensitivity in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Updated January 27, 2011

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The Symptom of Light & Noise Sensitivity:

Light and noise sensitivity in fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) have been scientifically established since the early 1990s, but they're still underrecognized and rarely make symptoms lists. Rest assured that you're not alone in experiencing this symptom!

When I used to take my kids to daycare, some mornings the noise would hit me like brick wall. In a instant, I'd have pain, nausea, dizziness, trembling, and a looming panic attack. More than once, I had to call in sick as a result of it. I've had similar experiences with bright or flashing lights, or with visual chaos in general.

Causes of Light & Noise Sensitivity:

We don't know the causes of light and noise sensitivity, but they're often called "generalized hypervigilance." That means our bodies are constantly on high alert. It's also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hypervigilance is beneficial for people in potentially dangerous situations, such as soldiers or police officers, because it speeds up several processes and helps with crisis response.

In FMS and ME/CFS, however, hypervigilance overwhelms us. We don't know why, but possibilities include:

Symptoms of Generalized Hypervigilance:

Common symptoms of hypervigilance include:

  • Anxiety
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trembling
  • Rapid or labored breathing
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances

Treating Light & Noise Sensitivity:

So far, we don't have research showing that specific treatments alleviate light and noise sensitivity in FMS and ME/CFS.

In people with PTSD, treatment for the anxiety related to generalized hypervigilance can include mental-health counseling and medications, especially antidepressants. These medications are also common treatments for FMS and ME/CFS.

Supplements for anxiety and stress may help you cope better with light and noise sensitivity as well. Some people also benefit from treatments such as massage or acupuncture.

Impact on Your Life:

Light and noise sensitivity can have a huge impact on your life. You may avoid certain situations and even fear them, which increases anxiety. It can also contribute to social isolation, which is common in people with FMS or ME/CFS, and can worsen depression.

Some work environments are difficult to endure. I used to be a television news producer, which meant sitting under a lighting grid in a room with dozens of TVs and ringing phones. I went from thriving on the chaos to having regular anxiety attacks. I decided to leave the job. Other people may be able to get reasonable accommodation to lessen the impact of this symptom.

Coping With Light & Noise Sensitivity:

You might be able to eliminate or avoid many sources of excess noise and light, but you probably can't eliminate all of them. Several simple things can help you deal with light and noise sensitivity in your daily life:

  • Sunglasses are a must outside.

  • If fluorescent lights bother you, lightly tinted sunglasses or a hat with a brim may help.

  • In a noisy environment, ear plugs or listening to music on headphones may help some people.

  • Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques can help you get through episodes of sensory overload due to light and noise.

  • Teach your family and friends about the impact that light and noise have on you so they understand your requests to turn off lights or turn down the volume.

  • If your computer screen bothers you, try adjusting the brightness and contrast.

How do you deal with light and noise sensitivity? What impact has it had on your life? What symptoms does it cause? Click on "Share Your Experience" below to let us know. To read other people's stories, click on "Read responses."

Sources:

Beh HC. The journal of nervous and mental disease. 1997 Jan;185(1):55-8. Effect of noise stress on chronic fatigue syndrome patients.

Dohrenbusch R. et al. Zeitschrift fur Rheumatology. 1997 Dec;56(6):334-41. Fibromyalgia as a disorder of perceptual organization? An analysis of acoustic stimulus processing in patients with widespread pain.

Komaroff AL. Ciba Foundation Symposium. 1993;173:43-54; discussion 54-61. Clinical presentation of chronic fatigue syndrome.

May M, Emond A, Crawley E. Archives in disease and childhood. 2010 Apr;95(4):245-9. Phenotypes of chronic fatigue syndrome in children and young people.

McDermid AJ, Rollman GB, McCain GA. Pain. 1996 Aug;66(2-3):133-44. Generalized hypervigilance in fibromyalgia: evidence of perceptual amplification.

Petersel DL, Dror V, Cheung R. Journal of neuroscience research. 2011 Jan;89(1):29-34. Central amplification and fibromyalgia: disorder of pain processing.

Watson NF, et al. Arthritis and rheumatism. 2009 Sep;60(9):2839-44. Neurologic signs and symptoms in fibromyalgia.

Waylonis GW, Heck W. American journal of physical medicine and rehabilitation. 1992 Dec;71(6):343-8. Fibromyalgia syndrome. New associations.

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