When Migraine Strikes at Work

By Megan

Having a migraine attack at work can be THE worst.

If your job has a totally relaxing environment, you probably don’t need much advice on managing migraines there. (Please tell me what you do and who you work for, STAT!) But if, like the rest of us, you experience a fair amount of stress at work, that can be the perfect recipe for migraine attacks at work.

To make living with migraine more manageable, you want to figure out what, and where your migraine triggers are. For me, the workplace is a trigger-happy environment.

Migraines at work can create special problems, including embarrassment, reduced productivity, and, sometimes, less-than-supportive employers and co-workers.

So what can you do to help minimize the problems? Here’s my approach:

  1. Trigger avoidance at work
  2. Early migraine symptom identification at work
  3. Migraine attack action plan for work

1. Trigger Avoidance at Work

– Don’t let yourself get hungry at work. Skipped meals is a common migraine trigger. It’s easy to skip lunch or snacks when you’re under pressure to get things done at work. But that’s a mistake. Make sure to get that lunch break.

– Dim potential light triggers. Do the glare of computer screens, bright lights overhead, or your co-worker’s perfume make your head pound?

I have put an anti-glare screen protector on both my work, and home computer screens. I got permission from my supervisor to cover my overhead florescent lighting with blue light covers to decrease triggers.

– Make sure you know your food triggers. Avoid foods and beverages that could trigger a migraine at work.

For me, I started a food diary and found that these are my most common food triggers: processed foods, avocado, peanut butter, chocolate, artificial sweetener, coffee creamer, wine, cheese, and pickles.

– Make sure you get enough sleep each night before work. Lack of sleep or irregular sleep can easily lead to triggering migraines.

– Take breaks throughout the work day. I’ve had to implement personal breaks during work by “Changing the scene.” I take 5-10 minute breaks each work hour. Can’t leave the office like me? Simply stepping away from my desk, or taking a break from triaging patients, for short periods helps me cut tension.

– Schedule time away from work. Easier said than done right? The worst for me!

When you’re under stress, it’s important to give yourself time to recover. I’m learning you have to take vacations when they’re due. I’ve started taking mini-weekend vacations to Orlando as a way to step back, and allow myself time to disconnect. (Side note- I am a huge Harry Potter nerd who saved up for an annual pass to Universal!)

2. Early Migraine Symptom Identification at Work

Symptom identifying: For me, I can feel an “aura” before the onset of the migraine.

An aura can include visual disturbances such as blind spots, blurred vision and colored spots or sensations such as numbness, dizziness and pins and needles. When I’m hit with the aura, my goal is to always be prepared to manage the migraine.

Even if you don’t experience the aura, you should be prepared for a migraine in order to help reduce the symptoms. It can really help you keep control at work if you’re skilled at noticing the symptoms that warn a migraine’s on the way. Through the use of a migraine tracking app, these are often my symptoms both at work and at home prior to the aura: 

  • Stiff neck, usually left side
  • Constant yawning
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tingling and numbness; left hand and arm

3. Create a work migraine plan:

When you notice any of your migraine warning signs, it’s time to take immediate preventive action. Through planning, you may be able to avoid a full blown migraine at work.

– Water. Have water easily accessible. Staying hydrated is important to your total health. A good rule of thumb to stay hydrated is take your body weight and divide it in half to get the number of ounces you should consume each day.

– Get help from your coworkers/boss. Be willing to reach out to your employer for help during a migraine. When others understand the situation, they can help you. For me, my coworkers will help me triage and discharge patients for me.

– Turn off the lights in your work space if able. Migraines often increase sensitivity to light and sound.

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– Have medication at hand. Taking this at the earliest stage is key! I have a “migraine attack medicine bag” in my work bag, car, husband’s car, suitcase and purse just to cover myself.

– Sensory distractions. I like cool wet towels to soothe my head during an attack at work. I keep these in a zip lock baggie in our work freezer.

– Drink a caffeinated beverage. In small amounts, caffeine alone can help relieve migraine in the early stages.

– Keep sunglasses in your work bag. I sometimes wear my sunglasses inside at work when I triage patients or work on the computer. Most of my patients and coworkers now know what sunglasses inside mean.

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 12.06.08 PM

– If possible, retreat to a quite space at work. For me, I go into an empty patient room for a few minutes of quiet space while I’m waiting for my attack medication to start working.

Use these steps the next time you feel a migraine coming on at work, and you may find success in managing the pain. Remember, you are not alone in your fight against migraine.


(Notes: Anti-Glare protector I purchased off of Amazon.com; I have one for my work desktop as well that pops on and off. I also purchased overhead light covers on Amazon.com as well.)

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