Sunday, May 19, 2024

Working with migraines in the office

Let’s face it, working with migraines in the office is something no one wants to deal with but is an unfortunate reality for many. Primary headache disorders, including migraines and tension and cluster headaches, affect almost half of the general population.

For office workers, chronic migraines can be especially debilitating due to their recurrent nature and distressing symptoms like nausea, heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. 

This is compounded by the fact that many elements commonly found in office workspaces and lifestyles are recognized as triggers for migraine attacks. 

But no need to look for another job! 

If you suffer from recurring migraine attacks, your employer can provide workplace accommodations such as a flexible work schedule with frequent breaks, reduced workload and increased sick leave to help you stay healthy and productive in the office.

Your employer is legally required to offer these accommodations if necessary and you may even be eligible for disability benefits depending on the severity and frequency of your migraines.

What causes migraines?

Migraines are complex and poorly understood, often involving genetic and environmental factors we are unaware of and which are different for everyone. If you get frequent migraines, see a headache specialist to work out how to prevent and treat them. 
For head pain accompanied by neck stiffness and blurred vision, call triple zero or have someone drive you to your nearest hospital as your symptoms could signal a life-threatening condition called meningitis
Below are some common aspects of your work environment and daily routine that may be causing your symptoms. As migraine triggers vary between individuals, identifying yours is key to taking back control of your social and working life.


Many office workers sit while driving or commuting to work, for eight hours a day at a desk and again on their trip home.

It’s no secret that so much sitting and no exercise can put you out of shape and contribute to long-term ailments including diabetes and heart disease.

But its lesser known effects on your upper body muscles and cervical spine can trigger head pain and migraine attacks, especially if you have poor posture or your workstation’s ergonomics force you into an unnatural position.


Artificial lighting and brightness are particularly common migraine triggers in many patients. Many offices use incandescent and fluorescent lights in their workspaces and their glare or flickering may cause migraine attacks.

Less commonly, migraine strikes after long periods of staring at bright lights or your computer screen. Any overhead lights reflecting off your screen will also increase its glare. 

Together, these sources force your visual cortex to work harder to process information, compensating for the frequent changes in brightness.

To prevent your office lighting from triggering migraines, position your chair and computer monitor away from overhead lights or cover your monitor with an anti-glare screen. Placing covers over any fluorescent bulbs to filter their glare may also help protect your visual cortex from overstimulation.


Deadlines are fast approaching and your workload is huge. You just had some difficult conversations with your boss and co workers. Worse, layoffs might be coming.

While sometimes this work-related stress is a great motivator, research shows that when poorly managed, it causes structural and functional changes in the brain which can trigger episodic and chronic migraine. This helps explain why migraine strikes often in stressful circumstances, with 80 percent of sufferers reporting stress as a trigger.

Stress can also increase migraine pain by interrupting your sleep. When your sleep cycle is disrupted, your pineal gland produces low melatonin levels which according to one study may exacerbate migraine symptoms. 

Sleep deprivation may also disturb your body’s pain inhibition mechanisms and decrease serotonin production, causing higher migraine frequency and headaches upon waking. 

Fast food

Whether you’re grabbing breakfast on your way to the office or a quick snack during your break, you may be tempted to choose fast food. But those processed foods are loaded with saturated fats, sodium and additives which can cause a painful migraine headache. 

According to the United States National Headache Foundation, the nitrates found in processed meats, including hot dogs, bacon and deli treats along with the monosodium glutamate (MSG) added to sauces and many fast food products are common migraine triggers.
Instead, prepare some home-made meals for work to arm your body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs. 
Great options include:
  • Home-made salads
  • High protein sources such as eggs, low-fat milk and yoghurt
  • Fresh or canned fruits and vegetables
  • complex carbohydrates – starches and whole-grain breads
 Alternatively, research restaurants and outlets near your workspace to find nutritious fast-food alternatives during your breaks. 
Avoid skipping meals whenever possible since low blood sugar levels may worsen head pain and trigger a migraine attack in some people. 

Treating migraines

Since everyone’s migraine triggers and symptoms can be different, keeping a migraine diary will help you learn which treatment strategies best work for you and develop an effective treatment plan with your healthcare provider. 
After each migraine episode, Migraine and Headache Australia recommend recording your symptoms, possible triggers such as recent diet and lifestyle changes, and any action you took to relieve the symptoms.

Migraine medications

Taking pain medications when you feel an attack coming can alleviate mild symptoms. NSAIDs including ibuprofen and aspirin or pain relievers such as paracetamol are affordable over-the-counter options proven to relieve migraine headaches in less severe attacks. 
Additionally, while excessive caffeine is a common migraine trigger for many patients, peer-reviewed studies and the American Migraine Foundation report that consuming it in moderation or with certain pain medications may provide further relief.
And you may need to consider stronger pain medications if your episodes are more severe. Triptans relieve a migraine headache by activating serotonin receptors, preventing inflammatory markers from being released and transmitting pain signals to the brain. 
But as with any medications, take them with caution. Triptans constrict blood vessels to block these markers and may cause cardiovascular problems in people with heart diseases. Consult your healthcare provider before taking triptans if you have any heart conditions.

Posture and exercise

Poor posture is an epidemic in today’s office workers. We are constantly staring at computer screens, which can cause our heads and shoulders to hunch forward and create an excessive curvature of the lower back which strains our neck muscles. 
With comfortable chairs and your full attention on the task at hand, we don’t even notice it happening.

To reduce this strain and the risk of migraine attacks, try setting an alarm every twenty or thirty minutes to stand up and stretch your body and observe your posture, ensuring you are sitting up straight and your head and shoulders are aligned—step outside for a quick walk and some fresh air if possible. 

Besides keeping your body in good shape, an exercise routine outside the office has huge benefits for your brain which may reduce migraine episodes. 

Excessive exercise can exacerbate headaches. However, high-intensity interval training, which consists of short bursts of vigorous movements like jogging, running, and climbing stairs, has been shown to alleviate migraine symptoms. This is achieved by reducing arterial stiffness and inflammation, ultimately enhancing blood flow to the brain.

Manage stress

Since stress is a common migraine trigger, effectively managing it will likely ward off migraine and more serious problems such as burnout and depression. 

Signs of stress affecting your well-being include feeling anxious or irritable, experiencing racing thoughts, and encountering aches and tension in your body. The good news is that there are many ways to relieve stress which may prevent a migraine attack or at least reduce your symptoms.


Studies show that gentle yoga poses relieve stress by reducing cortisol and correcting imbalances in the autonomic nervous system linked to neurological disorders. 


While vigorous stretches may exacerbate migraine symptoms, gentle poses such as the child’s pose and forward fold reduce migraine attack frequency in many patients and reduce their reliance on pain medications.


Meditation practices and physical exercise, especially mindfulness, deep breathing and yoga are effective ways to calm your mind and improve vascular flow to the brain.
Clinical trials show that guided mindfulness meditation exercises may reduce the frequency of headaches in chronic migraine patients by reversing chemical imbalances and changes to brain structure associated with headache disorders. 
Social support
Engaging in conversations about your stressors with co-workers, friends, or family members can provide you with a fresh perspective, helping you mentally dissect your concerns and thereby reducing their emotional and physical impacts.
This can prevent a migraine at work by putting you in a calmer mood, which reduces tension and improves your sleep quality. 
Interests and hobbies
Balancing a full-time job can make it challenging to find time for the things we enjoy, but it’s crucial for chronic migraine sufferers to prioritize hobbies and pastimes as significant aspects of their lives and incorporate them into their schedules.
Enjoying your favorite activities will reduce stress hormones and improve sleep quality, lowering headaches in the office the next day.
Migraines don’t need to control your life. Eating well, managing stress and a gentle exercise routine go a long way in preventing migraine episodes. Discovering your personal triggers with a headache specialist will also improve your quality of life and help you enjoy a rewarding office career.
People who read this article also read ‘Working remotely? Take care of your physical health.’
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Tim Ward

Tim Ward

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