How to Avoid Migraine Headache Triggers at Work
Migraines on the job could be from anything that causes stress or goes along with stress. Find out how to pinpoint your personal triggers to limit these debilitating headaches.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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If you always love your job and your workplace is a totally relaxing environment, you don’t need advice on migraines and stress.
But if, like the rest of us, you experience a fair amount of stress at work, that can spell migraine.
To make living with migraine headaches easier, you want to figure out what and where your migraine triggers are. For many people, the workplace is a trigger-happy environment. You can pinpoint your office triggers by keeping a migraine headache diary and including interactions with coworkers and your boss.
Studies show that the type of stress most likely to trigger migraine is everyday stress, not occasional big deal stress like getting married or having a baby. “Stress is by far the most common trigger for migraine,” says Noah Rosen, MD, director of the Headache Center at North Shore-LIJ’s Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, N.Y.
“The reason stress is such a big trigger is because it often comes along with lots of other triggers like change in diet, loss of sleep, skipped meals, or too much caffeine.” A lot of those can result from dealing with a high-stress job or a heavy workload.
Common Workplace Triggers
Stress at work could involve disagreeable or difficult coworkers or a boss that rubs you the wrong way, working late, working under a deadline, or just working when you would rather be doing almost anything else.
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Making matters worse, while stress may be the most common trigger, it's not the only one. Other possibilities include:
Lighting.Bright light, flickering light, and light from computer screens can all trigger a migraine headache because of sensory pathways involved with migrines. A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that people with migraine are so sensitive to light that even migraineurs with vision so poor they're legally blind experience worse pain when exposed to light.
Odors.Your coworkers don’t need to be emotionally stressful to trigger a migraine — if they're smoking near your workplace or wearing a strong cologne, that alone could trigger your migraine. Other odor producing triggers at work could be chemicals or cleaning products.
Noise.A noisy workplace could be your migraine trigger. Loud or sudden noise can trigger a migraine or make it worse.
Food and drink.There are many types of food that may trigger a migraine, so it is important to keep track of what you eat at work, especially if you go off your diet during a break at work. Common triggers are lunch meats, chocolate, and Chinese food if it has MSG. Even an artificial sweetener dumped into a quick cup of coffee could be the culprit.
Overexertion.If your work requires periods of significant physical exertion, that could be your migraine trigger. On the other hand, regular physical activity can be good for migraine.
Travel.If your job requires you to travel, migraine triggers can be changes in your sleeping and eating patterns. Travel may also trigger migraine through changes in temperature, motion sickness, changes in altitude, even the stress of waiting in lines at the airport.
Tips for Living With Migraine and Avoiding Your Triggers
Recognizing your personal triggers is key. That’s where keeping a migraine diary comes in. Write down changes in your mood, stress level, sleep, foods, even the weather. It may take some time before you can see patterns and clearly know what to avoid. In the meantime, try these self-care soothers:
- Learn how to relax at your workstation with deep breathing, meditation, or just listening to your favorite music through earbuds.
- Eat a healthy diet, and don’t skip meals.
- Get regular hours of sleep.
- Drink plenty of fluids during the day.
- Reduce glare at work. Don’t sit under flickering or fluorescent lighting, and place a glare screen over your computer.
Frustrating as migraines are, you can exert some control over them. A study published in the journal Cephalalgia followed 91 patients with migraine headaches. One group of patients exercised for 40 minutes three times per week. One group of patients listened to relaxation tapes, and a third group took a daily migraine prevention medication. After three months, all three groups had a reduction in their migraines — exercise and relaxation worked as well as medication. No matter how busy your workday, it's important to make time for migraine prevention, especially with relaxation or exercise.
Video: What Causes A Migraine?
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