Migraine – The elephant in the room

Invisible illnesses – migraine, Fibromyalgia, lupus, Crohn’s disease, ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme disease – just to name a few. While they may be “invisible” on the outside, we know they are incredibly active internally. It’s a lot to digest.

From a slower than “norm” pace to get to the other side of the crosswalk, a fever, or inability to concentrate after an overly stimulated day – the stigma of invisible illness deserves a conversation, more awareness, and respect.

I would take a guess that at least one person that you know in some regard has an “invisible” illness that places limitations on them.

Speaking from experience, it can be frightening to share that during a job interview or truly anytime while at the workplace. It’s a well-known fact that many people have lost jobs due to their limitations.

Based on studies conducted in several countries, including the United States, England, France, Turkey, and Sweden, “prevalence of [migraines impairing workability] appears highest during the peak employment years of ages 25 to 55.”*

Given that we spend the majority of our day at the workplace, it should be a safe space, right? It should be an environment with accessibility, modifications, and compassion as so needed by the employees.

“Migraines have been described as chronic and debilitating with significant direct and indirect costs for the workplace due to absenteeism and presenteeism.”*

The stigma associated with migraines is no surprise because, “Prior to 1988, health care providers had no systematic approach to diagnosing and classifying types of headaches or migraines, with or without aura.”*

Things that can be problematic migraine triggers include various things in the workplace, such as harsh lighting, too bright of glow from video display terminals, stress, significant smells, and noise. Some employers are good about working with migraine sufferers to mitigate these items in the workplace, others not so much.

I can attest to the fact that strong light has been a major trigger in my migraine journey. The sensitivity to light that is realized by migraine patients is called photophobia.

According to “Shedding light on photophobia,” published in the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology (North American Neuro-Ophthalmology Society), photophobia is “defined as an ‘abnormal sensitivity to light, especially of the eyes.’”

The journal also stated that in addition to migraine, some of the conditions associated with photophobia include: optic neuritis, anxiety disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, and dry eyes.

What if we focused on bridging the gap and making things a little easier on working migraine patients? I know I would have experienced a huge sigh of relief a few years ago if my boss had asked if there was anything (I’m not talking unnecessary or costly) that would allow me to work more comfortably.

There are some simple measures that address migraine triggers in the workplace. One is getting a snap-on, shaded attachment for a computer screen, to make it less bright and easier on the eyes.

Some migraine patients ask permission to remove some of the lightbulbs from the overhead lights in their work area. Granted, this is easier if the individual has an office separate from others.

Those who have migraines triggered by too much cold air or heat have found that closing a ceiling vent over their work area has been a life-saver.

Something as simple as lowering the ringtone on a desk phone can mean staying migraine-free at work.

I consider myself very fortunate now, because my work team knows about my migraine wellness plan, the days I am receiving treatment, and the limitations that my body places on me and that I place on myself to safeguard me as a whole.

I firmly believe that when we bind health and relationships together, the collective result is overwhelmingly positive and allows for more compassion, education, better wellbeing, and mental strength. Better wellbeing means less work time lost, more productivity and a win-win for both the employee and the company.

I encourage you to have a conversation with your co-workers and boss. A positive, optimistic, and honest approach to find accommodations that may improve your quality of life could be just around the corner.

*Source: Migraine Disorder, Workplace implications and solutions, by Peggy A. Berry.

Coming next: Migraine made me more self-confident