Coping With Migraines at Work

Early identification and an action plan can help

If you have migraines, you know they're never welcome anytime or anywhere. But migraines at work create special problems. Your symptoms may reduce your productivity, or you may not be able to escape pain-worsening elements of your environment, among other things.

You can best cope with migraines at work by learning your migraine triggers, avoiding the most common ones you encounter at work, and implementing a practical, effective action plan to address one when you feel it coming on—or it's already arrived.

coping with migraines at work
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Identify Your Migraine Triggers

If you know your migraine triggers, you're off to a good start. Though a migraine may strike at work and, in some cases, be due to triggers you encounter there, an on-the-job attack may be set into motion by a trigger you encountered before you arrived. Being aware of what might "set off" your disorder is essential to getting ahead of it.

Work on identifying triggers or conditions that tend to bring on your migraines, if you're not aware of them already. One good way to do this is to keep a migraine diary.

Everyone has different triggers. In fact, a 2018 meta-analysis of studies on migraine triggers identified a whopping 420 unique examples.

The researchers were able to narrow the results down to 33 of the most common triggers, some of which include:

  • Stress
  • Hormones
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Light
  • Not eating or drinking
  • Caffeine (or the lack thereof)
  • Heat
  • Physical exertion
  • Odors
  • Travel (exposure to different types of weather and levels of elevation)

Everyone's triggers manifest differently, too. For instance, bright lights may be to blame for your migraines 75 percent of the time, while exposure may only bring about a migraine 25 percent of the time in someone else.

The purpose of identifying your triggers is so that you can make changes to help avoid whatever ones you can, whether you're at work, home, or play.

How to Avoid Your Work-Related Migraine Triggers

Once you have pinpointed your triggers using your migraine diary, you can start making changes that help you dodge them, such as getting adequate rest each night. At work specifically, keep these things in mind.

Eat Regularly

Don't let a busy workday prevent you from eating regular meals because skipping meals is one of the top migraine triggers. At the very least, keep a protein bar, trail mix, or some nuts in your desk so you can snack on something filling if you don't have time to stop for a meal.

Drink Water

Keep yourself well-hydrated throughout the work day since dehydration can start head pain. The easiest way to do this is to have a bottle of water by your side at all times and take frequent sips.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least eight cups a day, though you may need more if you're sweating, sick, or exercising.

Use Blue Light Filters

Blue light from devices can also mess with your circadian rhythm, which in turn can disrupt your sleep, contributing to migraines. Fortunately, there's software that filters out the blue light on your computer, tablet, or phone.

Windows 10 comes with its own blue light filter called "Night Light," and MacOS has "Night Shift," but you have to turn these on in your settings. Third-party blue light filter options include F.lux and Iris mini.

You can also try blue-light-blocking glasses. These may be especially handy at work if you're dealing with a migraine.

Avoid Stress

You may not be able to avoid all stress at work, but you can learn to recognize and sidestep situations that tend to raise your stress level. You can also use quick stress management strategies like deep breathing or taking a quick walk to help you power through tense times on the job.

Stress is an extremely common migraine trigger. If you find that's the case for you and your job is often stressful, you may even consider looking for a new position. This may not always be reasonable, of course. But a less stressful environment may be what you need to help decrease the frequency and strength of your migraines.

Consider Caffeine

For some people, caffeine can be a migraine trigger. If that includes you, avoid relying on it to help power you through a work project.

However, for most people, caffeine helps relieve head pain. In addition, research shows that a dose of 100 mg or more of caffeine taken with over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications like Tylenol (acetaminophen), Motrin/Advil (ibuprofen), or Bayer/Bufferin (aspirin) significantly boosts the relief of migraine or tension-headache pain compared to the pain reliever alone. This is because caffeine helps your body absorb the pain reliever better.

Researchers aren't sure how much caffeine is optimal, but around 100 to 130 mg at a time is probably about right for those for whom caffeine is not a trigger. (For reference, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine, an 8-ounce cup of brewed black tea averages 55 mg, and a 12-ounce can of cola contains 55 mg.)

If you regularly consume caffeine and it tends to help your head pain, be sure not to skip your morning cup of joe. Caffeine withdrawal can trigger a migraine.

If you're not a fan of caffeinated drinks, you can buy caffeine tablets to take along with your OTC pain reliever or you can take Excedrin, which is made up of a combination of Tylenol, aspirin, and 130 mg of caffeine.

Just be careful not to use any pain relievers, with or without caffeine, more than 10 to 15 days every month; this can lead to medication overuse headaches. (The 10- to 15 day-per-month rule does not apply to caffeine, just to pain medications.)

Turn Down the Lights

Many people with migraines are sensitive to the flickering of fluorescent lights or lights that are too bright, especially when a migraine is coming on. If that includes you, turn off that overhead light if you can and get a floor or desk lamp that doesn't use a fluorescent bulb.

If you can't turn off the overhead light, try talking to a supervisor about changing it to a softer light, adding a shade, or even removing the bulb, at least near your workstation. Or perhaps you can move to a different spot that isn't as bright.

Another alternative is to wear light sensitivity glasses. These can be especially helpful if you're at work when a migraine strikes. They can be purchased at many online retailers.

Minimize Computer Glare

Similar to overhead light glaring light from an electronic device can trigger a migraine for some people or cause light sensitivity when you're having a migraine. Here are some ways you can reduce your exposure, such as:

  • Turn down the light/brightness setting.
  • Move your computer and/or your chair to a different angle.
  • Use an anti-glare screen or hood on your computer monitor (available at office supply stores and online).
  • If you wear glasses, you may want to add an anti-reflective coating to reduce the glare.

If you have a migraine and your computer's glare and/or the overhead lights are bothering you, it might be worth it to try wearing light-colored sunglasses while you work.

Give Your Eyes a Break

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that people using computers implement the "20-20-20" rule: Every 20 minutes, look at an object that's a minimum of 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. This gives your eyes a break from the continual close-up work of a computer screen and may help reduce your headaches.

Stay Cool

If heat is a migraine trigger for you, keep a fan at your desk and use your break time to get some fresh air. Sipping on ice water or even placing a cool washcloth or ice pack on your head if you're feeling too warm can help keep a migraine at bay.

Don't Overdo It

Physical exertion is another common migraine trigger for some people, so be aware of this one if your job involves a lot of movement. For instance, if you deliver packages and notice that your migraines are less frequent or less severe on your days off (when you're, perhaps, not as active), do your best to take a break, hydrate, and cool down throughout your shift.

That said, researchers have found that regular aerobic exercise actually reduces the frequency and strength of migraines, as well as helps other medical conditions that tend to co-occur with migraines like insomnia, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.

Control Odors

Maybe certain odors are one of your migraine triggers. While you may not always be able to avoid offending scents, you can engage others in helping you minimize them. For instance, you can ask to move your desk if you're near a break room where people eat lunch or explain to your co-worker that the heavy scent he or she uses gives you a headache.

Do whatever you can to take control of your environment: Crack a window, keep your office space ventilated, go outside, or keep a small jar of coffee beans or your favorite essential oil to sniff as needed.

Be Travel Savvy

If you travel for work, remember that trips can present special challenges for people who get migraines. Be aware of possible migraine-contributing changes in weather, altitude, time zone, and your schedule and plan accordingly. For instance, you can pack some pressure-regulating earplugs like WeatherX that help weather-related migraines or EarPlanes to help with altitude changes during your flight.

Other migraine triggers to watch out for include travel motion, increased risk of dehydration, and unfamiliar foods. Have some Dramamine handy, as well as migraine pain relief medication, and make sure you're drinking plenty of water.

When You Feel a Migraine Coming On at Work

While you probably just want to go home and head to bed when a migraine strikes, that may not always be possible. Given this, it's important to tune into the symptoms that warn you that a migraine's on the way so you can take steps to prevent it from progressing or worsening.

Pay Attention to Advance Notice

The prodromal phase of a migraine, the first to occur, can alert you that a migraine attack is imminent. People may experience these or other symptoms:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Stiff neck
  • Excessive yawning
  • Food cravings
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells

Getting to know premonitory symptoms like these and others is important, but remember that what you experience early on in a migraine (if anything) is personal to you. Dizziness, irritability, ringing in the ears, seeing spots of light, and other symptoms are all worth paying attention to.

Activate an Action Plan

When you notice any of your migraine warning signs, it's time to take immediate preventive action. You may be able to avoid progression to a full-blown migraine by doing one or more of the following:

  • Eat a snack. A hard-boiled egg, dark chocolate, or something salty may be good options.
  • Drink some water or an electrolyte-infused beverage like Gatorade or Powerade.
  • Close your office door (or go to a room where you can be alone and close the door), lock it if necessary, turn off the lights, and rest or catch a quick nap.
  • Drink some caffeine if you've found that it helps your head pain.
  • Do breathing and relaxation techniques to relieve stress.
  • Place hot compresses or ice packs on your head or neck. You may find that one works better for you than the other.
  • Use a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit or an Alpha-Stim device at the first sign of pain.
  • Try some over-the-counter medication like Motrin or Advil (ibuprofen), Excedrin, or Tylenol (acetaminophen). It's best if you only use this medication three times a week at the most, however, because otherwise you can end up with a medication overuse headache.

(You may want to create a "migraine kit" full of some of the above items so you have it on-hand at work, just in case.)

If none of these things helps stop or slow your developing symptoms, consider talking to your doctor about prescription medications. There are medications you can take as soon as you notice a migraine symptom and preventative medications that you can take daily to head off the onset of symptoms.

In the event that your doctor recommends migraine medication, choosing the one that's best for you will be based on the frequency and severity of your headaches and your symptoms' responsiveness to different types you try until you find the one that's most effective.

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