10 Tips for Managing Migraines at Work

Tens of millions of people suffer from migraines. For the lucky ones, they may only strike a few times a month. For those who are less fortunate, they could be a daily occurrence. And if you are really, really unfortunate, you could have a migraine most or even all of the time.

People who do not suffer from migraines do not understand how debilitating they can be. Because there are no outward marks of suffering, they assume that the pain cannot really be that bad. It does not help that in our modern society, we are taught to be stoic, and to hide our pain.

The result is that at work, migraines can be very problematic. You can tell your employer all you want that you are suffering—but he or she will probably just say, “So what? Lots of people get headaches.”

The worst thing is, your employer is probably so ignorant as to really believe your pain isn’t worth their trouble.

But you know how hard it is to function with a migraine at all—much less try and concentrate and not make mistakes through the pounding pain, the fuzzy vision, the nauseous gut. If the pain is bad enough, you might even find yourself feeling faint—and could even pass out.

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So what can you do to try and mitigate migraines at work? Here are some suggestions to help you survive your day.

1. Know your triggers

There are so many different potential migraine triggers, and they can vary a great deal from one person to the next. You need to identify your triggers, and then avoid those triggers as best you can both before and during work. If it all possible, you should always seek to prevent a migraine from ever striking.

Even if you cannot, you may be able to work around your triggers. For example, if your migraines are hormonal and tend to hit around a certain time of month, you may not be able to prevent them, but you can try scheduling your more challenging and stressful tasks during a different time of the month, leaving easier tasks for those times when you will not be functioning at your best.

2. Make sure you have enough food and water

Two very common migraine triggers are dehydration and not getting enough nutrition throughout the day. Both of these are particularly problematic during work, because you may not always be able to control your time. Nonetheless, you should find ways to snack at intervals, and you should keep a water bottle with you at all times. If you need to, schedule routine breaks to take a bite of food and a sip of water. If you must, you can use bathroom breaks to do this.

3. Dim bright lights if you can

Another common migraine trigger which can be challenging to deal with at work is bright light. If you have your own office, consider pulling the blinds shut over a large window, and replacing glaring overhead lights with dimmer ones. You can also set your monitor at a lower power setting so that the display is dimmer and uses less energy.

Suppose you have no control over your environment? You may be able to invest in a pair of specialized glasses which block out some of the light from your surroundings so that you are less likely to suffer from an attack. While there are glasses specifically designed for migraineurs (they block out specific light frequencies), a pair of sunglasses may do the trick as well.

4. Check that you have an ergonomic set-up

Remember, migraines are not the only cause of headache pain at work. You might also be subject to tension headaches, and migraines and tension headaches can feed into each other.

Take a look around your desk right now. Is your setup ergonomic? Would you do better with a different chair, or with some other adjustment to put less of a strain on your neck, shoulders, arms and back?

If you are able to make ergonomic changes to your workspace, do so. If you do not have that power, make sure that you are taking regular breaks (see below).

5. Regularly take breaks (if possible).

If you have a desk job where you sit all day, you should be getting up every 15 to 30 minutes to stretch and walk around, even if it is just inside your office. If you have a job where you are standing all day, look for excuses to walk around. Say for example you work at a front desk. Say that the desk needs cleaning, and get busy with that instead of just standing there. You were still tending the desk, but you are disguising your self-care as productivity.

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6. Minimize stress

Minimizing stress at work is not the same as eliminating it. You probably will not be able to do the latter, but you may be able to achieve the former. Stress can make migraines much worse, and can also spawn tension headaches. While you should outperform your job description, now and again it is okay to say “no.”

7. Stock up on handy supplies like ice packs

At home, there are probably a number of supplies which you use to help you manage your migraines. You may be able to bring some of these to work. Along with any medications or supplements you take, you might for example use an ice pack. You can probably squeeze one into the freezer in the office break room without anyone asking too many questions.

8. Be incredibly careful how (and if) you reveal your condition

Should you tell your co-workers or bosses that you suffer from migraines? There is no set rule on this, but I highly recommend that you avoid it if at all possible. Again, people who do not suffer from migraines do not understand that they are a crippling disease. As a result, they will not take your complaints seriously, and may even think you are attempting to shirk your duties.

If you are thinking about revealing that you have a problem, here are a few suggestions:

  • Only tell others if you believe that doing so will actually result in some betterment of your circumstances, or is likely to prevent some kind of problem, such as a poor performance evaluation.
  • Be careful who you tell about your migraines. If there is another migraine sufferer in the office, that person may make a good ally. If you do need to tell your boss, consider first telling someone over at HR or any specialized department available to employees to help them manage health concerns. They may be able to give you some tips on the approach you should take with your boss.
  • Consider getting a note from a doctor. If you think that you are going to encounter trouble revealing your migraines, but you see no way out of it, think about first visiting your doctor and getting him or her to write you a note explaining the situation to your employer. Since your doctor is an authority figure and you are not, your boss is more likely to respect the word of your doctor over your own.
  • Think about giving a different, nondescript explanation for your woes. In some circumstances, it may be wiser to let on that you have a health problem, and do not allude to it being anything in particular. You may be able to give the impression that it is a touchy subject, and that others should tread lightly and respectfully around it. Co-workers and bosses may more easily empathize if they can fill in the blanks on their own for something that they can relate to and feel compassionate about.

9. Schedule time off when you need to—even if you cannot be honest about the reason

There may be days when your migraines are so agonizing that going into work is a losing proposition. Consider actually taking these days off. You cannot tell your boss in all likelihood that you are doing so because you have a headache, but you can come up with some work-approved excuse. The flu is usually a safe bet because nobody wants to catch it. Just make sure that you do not do this too often; save these excuses for when you absolutely cannot stand to come in.

10. Consider applying for disability

Finally, one last option is to think about applying for disability for your migraines. This is not easy. The lack of recognition for migraines as a legitimately debilitating condition sadly extends far beyond the workplace, and also affects government bureaucracies. If you are going to do this, be aware that you probably are going to have to fight ahead of you.

Incorporate Positive Lifestyle Changes In and Outside the Workplace to Reduce Migraine Frequency and Pain

Managing migraines at work can be incredibly challenging, to the point where there may be days when you wonder if you can even continue to hold down a job. Unfortunately, because it is so hard to get disability, and because disability pays out so little, you do have to take care of yourself to the best of your ability.

The suggestions that I just provided should help you out, especially with acute attacks during work. Be sure to read the other articles on our blog for more suggestions on how to manage your migraines through lifestyle changes. What you do at home can be just as important as what you do at the office when it comes to reducing the frequency and severity of workplace headaches.

Whatever you do, do not give up. It is wrong and unfair when your employer and co-workers cannot respect your situation. But that does not mean that you are helpless to create positive changes in your life and your health. Even if it takes months or years, with diligence, a reduction in your pain is possible.

Read Next: What is the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine?