Tips for Handling Migraines At Work

by Teri Robert Patient Advocate

Understand, Advocate, Make Changes, Be Alert, Educate

A HarrisInteractive poll conducted for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in 2002 showed that 15 million men and women in the United States have either gone to work with a Migraine or gotten a Migraine at work. Two-thirds of those Migraineurs "struggled through" to stay at work. Dr. Jan Lewis Brandes, a headache and Migraine specialist at Vanderbilt University, says, "Many people struggle through the debilitating pain of migraine to get the job done and because they do not want to let down their co-workers."

Although more people in the U.S. suffer from Migraine than from asthma and diabetes combined, Migraine remains one of the most underdiagnosed, misunderstood, and undertreated of diseases.

Even Migraineurs don't understand the disease and realize how much help is available. The Harris poll also indicated that 61% of the respondents took over-the-counter medications or nothing at all for Migraines. Dr. Brandes emphasizes, "Migraine is a real disease, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. It is possible to keep migraine under control, and the best way to do that is to see a doctor and get effective treatment.

Doctor Brandes shared some tips she offers her patients for handling Migraine in the workplace:

  1. Understand that Migraine is a real disease - not just a bad headache. Migraine sufferers sometimes tend to minimize their Migraines as "just headaches," not a disease with a range of symptoms that are as debilitating as the pain itself. Migraine is a real medical condition just like diabetes or asthma. Understanding this will better enable you to manage your Migraines and seek effective treatment.

  2. Be your best advocate. Talk to a doctor about your Migraines and how best to manage them. There are many effective new treatments specifically for Migraine. The newest class of these are called "triptans." They actually stop the Migrainous process in the brain to relieve Migraine pain quickly and also relieve the other symptoms of Migraine such as nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

  3. Make changes in your work environment that reduce your susceptibility to migraine triggers.

  • Make changes in your work environment that reduce your susceptibility to Migraine triggers.

  • Ask co-workers to go easy on perfume and cologne - smells can be powerful triggers; cigarette smoke, too.

  • Watch your caffeine intake. Small doses of caffeine may help treat a Migraine attack but large doses of caffeine can trigger a Migraine in some people.

  • Be sure to drink a lot of water and don't skip meals.

  • Use an anti-glare screen on your computer - straining your eyes can increase your chance of getting a Migraine.

  1. Be on the alert for early signs of migraine. Get to know your own Migraine patterns so that you can spot early signs of a Migraine attack. Some people experience irritability, mild pain or nausea that are signals that a Migraine is about to hit. Whenever possible, take your medication early. Dr. Brandes notes that 60% of Migraineurs have prodrome symptoms and can learn to recognize them early.

  2. Educate your boss and co-workers about migraine. The Harris-Pfizer survey showed that many people tell their colleagues about their Migraine. This is encouraging because creating understanding and awareness of Migraine and its impact can cultivate support from the people you work with.

  3. If Migraine increasingly makes you absent from work, forces you to go home early, or impairs your ability to do your job in any way, your Migraine condition is probably not under control. Tell your doctor if your Migraines are impacting you in your work. Your doctor can work with you on a treatment plan to help you.

Remember that Migraine triggers are what Dr. Brandes terms "stackable." While encountering one trigger might not result in a Migraine, adding another one may be a different matter.


  • "Managing a Migraine On the Job." Dr. Jan Lewis Brandes. 2003.

  • Personal Interview with Dr. Brandes conducted by Teri Robert. 2003

  • HarrisInteractive Poll: "The Impact of Migraine on Women and Men in the Workplace." Conducted for Pfizer Pharmaceutical. 2002.

Related Information...

Teri Robert
Meet Our Writer
Teri Robert

Teri Robert is a leading patient educator and advocate and the author of Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches. A co-founder of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and the American Headache and Migraine Association, she received the National Headache Foundation's Patient Partners Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the American Headache Society.