Driving with Migraines - A Fool's Errand?

Patient Expert
Medically Reviewed

As I sat with a severe migraine in the emergency room of the hospital and waited for treatment, I knew I was in big trouble. In the early hours of Sunday morning, I had driven to the hospital with a severe migraine that my rescue medication just wouldn't touch. I had considered calling someone to come and take me to the hospital. This is what I normally do. but I decided that this time was different. After all, my family was all out of town for the weekend, and it was my closest friend's birthday. Why disturb her in the middle of the night when I could just call a cab in the morning? The hospital was only three miles away, and there couldn't be that many people on the road at 2:30 in the morning. I'd be extra careful. Even as I drove there, I knew it was being foolhardy. Hadn't I talked with other migraineurs about the dangers of driving with a migraine? Slowed reaction time, increased photophobia, poorer cognitive processing — not to mention rescue medications in my system. I'd do it this time and never do it again. It would be my little secret.

However, upon arriving at the emergency room, they refused to treat me until someone was there to drive me home. I promised that I'd take a cab home in the morning or that I'd call someone then. I offered to give them my car keys to prove that I wasn't going anywhere, but they were steadfast. No driver; no treatment. I reluctantly picked up the phone and called one of my good friends. When she walked into the treatment room, I knew I was in trouble - migraine or not. Busted! I knew I wasn't going to hear the end of this any time soon.

You see, driving with a migraine isn't just inconvenient or uncomfortable, it's downright dangerous. It's also against the law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that you are an impaired driver if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sleepy, distracted by a cell phone, or having a medical condition while driving. In fact, HealthCentral has written of migraineurs whose licenses have been in jeopardy because of their migraines. Megan Oltman reported,

"34 of the 50 states have Medical Advisory Boards that review driver's licensing for older and 'medically-at-risk' drivers. Most of these boards have the power to restrict, suspend, or revoke driving privileges for individuals... They have the right to re-examine at any time if they receive 'evidence of a condition that may affect the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle."

So why is it dangerous to drive with a migraine? Migraine is a disabling neurological condition with a number of symptoms that can interfere with safe driving. These symptoms include:

  1. Decreased reaction time
  2. Slowed and impaired cognitive processing
  3. Difficulty concentrating
  4. Visual impairment due to aura or photosensitivity
  5. Distractibility due to pain or nausea
  6. Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  7. Changes in mood
  8. Side effects of migraine medications

I realize that not every migraineur experiences all of these symptoms every time they have a migraine. However, we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to carefully consider whether we are fully competent to drive safely whenever we get behind the wheel. None of us like to have our freedom or our independence limited, but migraine can be a very limiting disorder. That morning when I drove to the ER, I was not in any condition to work, socialize, read or even sleep. How preposterous to think that I couldn't do any of those things but that I was fully competent to drive to the ER. What if I had been like the man in England who was driving with a migraine and hit and killed a pedestrian? Or the woman who drove home from her doctor's office having been given Demerol for pain due to a migraine and hit another car, killing the driver? (State of Florida vs. May) I'd never be able to live with myself. This may sound like I'm over-reacting or being overly cautious, but frankly, better safe than sorry. It's not just my well being that I have to consider when I get in a car to drive.

I was definitely foolhardy when I reasoned that I could drive to the ER that one time. That's the problem with trying to reason something through when you have a migraine. I had no business thinking I was in the condition to make a decision like that, much less drive. If I was in enough pain to have to go the ER, then I needed to call an ambulance, a taxi or a friend to drive me. Period. It was not something for me to think about or to rationalize. My friend was right, as was Teri the next day when she jumped through the phone line after me when I told her what I did. You see, both of these people have seen me when I have a migraine. They know how much it impairs me. Teri knows first hand how disabling a migraine is from dealing with her own migraines and with her interactions with you readers who have migraines.

What about you? Do you feel that you are safe to drive when experiencing a migraine? Have you talked with your doctor about this or with the ones who best know how you are when you are in the midst of a migraine? Does it matter if it is a mild, moderate or severe migraine? Is it worth the risk? As for myself, I have re-affirmed my commitment to never drive while experiencing a migraine. It is a non-negotiable. There is always another alternative.

Wishing you health, hope & happiness,

PurpleRibbonTiny Teri1