Migraines at Work or School

Portrait of woman with a headache. Credit: Brand New Images / Getty Images

If you have migraines, you know they're never welcome anytime or anywhere. But migraines at work or school create special problems, including embarrassment, reduced productivity, and, sometimes, less-than-supportive employers, co-workers, or fellow students.  

So what can you do to help minimize the problems? Here's a three-pronged strategy including trigger avoidance, early symptom identification, and a practical, effective action plan.

Tips for Avoiding Migraine Triggers

If you know your migraine triggers, you're off to a good start! If you're not sure, work on identifying triggers or conditions that tend to bring on your migraines. Then use that information to put the following trigger-avoiding tips into action:

  • Don't let a busy workday prevent you from eating regular meals because skipping meals can lead to migraines.
  • Make sure you know your food triggers and avoid foods and beverages that could get a headache started. The most common food triggers include aged cheese, processed foods, cured meats, nuts, chocolate, yeast-containing baked goods, wine, beer, and foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), often found in food served at Chinese restaurants.
  • Keep yourself well-hydrated throughout the day. Always have a bottle of water handy, and take frequent sips.
  • Caffeine can be a migraine trigger for some people. If that includes you, avoid relying on it to help power you through a project.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep at night.
  • Avoid stress as much as possible. You may not be able to avoid some degree of stress at your workplace or school. But you can learn to recognize and sidestep situations that tend to raise your stress level.
  • Some people with migraines are sensitive to the flickering of fluorescent lights. If that includes you, turn off that overhead light and get a floor or desk lamp that doesn't use a fluorescent bulb.
  • Does the glaring light from an electronic device tend to bring on a migraine? Consider ways to minimize your exposure, such as turning down the light setting and/or moving or shielding your computer monitor.
  • 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 schedule; travel motion; increased risk of dehydration; and unfamiliar foods.

Learn Early Identification of Migraine Warning Signs

It can really help you keep control at work or school if you're skilled at noticing the symptoms that warn a migraine's on the way. Here's a quick review of migraine warning signs to watch for:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fatigue
  • Yawning
  • Frequent urination
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Bright spots or flashes of light or color before your eyes
  • Tingling or numbness in your hands, feet or face

Consider keeping a migraine diary to help you track these warning signs and your migraine-occurrence patterns. Use your diary to help you predict the onset of a migraine.

Create a Strong 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.
  • Drink some water.
  • 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 catch a quick catnap.
  • Practice some yoga or breathing and relaxation techniques to relieve stress.
  • Go for a brisk walk in the fresh air.

If none of these things helps stop or slow your developing symptoms, consider checking with your doctor to find out if you may benefit from anti-migraine medication.There are medications you take as soon as you notice a migraine symptom; others, taken daily, act preventively to head off the onset of symptoms.

  • For example, studies have shown that taking Topamax (topiramate) daily improves the workplace productivity of people who have migraines.

If your doctor recommends migraine medication, choosing the one that's best for you will be based on 1) the frequency and severity of your headaches and 2) your symptoms' responsiveness to medications you try until you find the one that's most effective.

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