Bright lights and extensive screen time could trigger or worsen your migraine attacks.
Computer monitors emit bright lights, which are a common trigger for people with migraine. There is also eyestrain caused by extensive staring and flickering images. But what if your job requires you to work in front of a computer? If you live with migraine and work on a computer, managing migraine can get tricky.
We spoke with Tony McGinty, a Salesforce administrator for a Dublin-based insurance company. Tony has migraine and works in Information Technology (IT), where most of his time is spent in front of a computer screen. Read on to learn how he manages migraine at work, what workplace accommodations he is provided and how migraine affects his coworkers.
Can prolonged screen time cause migraine attacks or headaches?
Screen time can be a trigger or worsening factor for some people with migraine. This is because of the bright lights that come from the screens, as well as eyestrain and potentially flickering images. Migraine attacks are thought to originate in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that regulates a lot of factors of the body, such as temperature. It also receives direct communication from the nerve cells in the eyes that receive lights. This is in part why people with migraine are very sensitive to light. Out of all the different frequencies/colors (wavelengths) of light, blue light excites brain cells most. As such, it is most bothersome for people with migraine.
In a field like IT, prolonged screen time is expected. “In my world, everyone is staring at the screen all the time,” says Tony. “So people get migraine, people get headaches. The screen is a constant in all our lives.”
Some symptoms of headaches caused by screen time include:
- Headache behind the eyes
- Eye strain
- Blurry vision
- Tightness in neck and shoulder muscles
- Dry eyes
- Sensitivity to lights
Posture can also affect a person’s migraine. When using a computer, try to arrange your work position where your eyeline matches the top of your computer screen. Having a poorly set up work station can lead to slouching, which puts physical strain and pressure on the back, shoulders, neck and core. Physical strain is also a migraine trigger. It is important to be conscious of how you are sitting and readjust accordingly. You may want to consider investing in ergonomic chairs or lumbar support pillows.
Workplace Stress and Migraine
In the IT industry, it is common to work with several clients at once, move heavy equipment, figure out system malfunctions, and more. As such, stress can build up and cause migraine attacks or headaches.
For Tony, his migraine is triggered after stressful events. Whenever he wraps up a project or meets a deadline, he feels a migraine attack coming on. To manage it, he takes his migraine medication and sits in his car for a few hours until he feels well enough to go back to work.
But for some of Tony’s coworkers, migraine is more difficult to manage. “They really, really should get in the taxi and go home,” continues Tony. “Some of them do, some of them don’t, some struggle and try. And it’s almost as if they feel guilty in some way, which is nonsense. I won’t accept that from anybody.”
Fortunately for Tony and his coworkers, they have an understanding employer that makes workplace accommodations for employees with migraine. For example, Tony has the option to work-from-home, which is a great way for people living with migraine to manage an attack.
“My employer is quite flexible,” says Tony. “I know people have been off work for weeks at a time for other illnesses. So I don’t really see any reason why they wouldn’t accommodate migraine in the same way.”
However, this is not the case for everyone. In a 2021 survey distributed by Migraine Association Ireland, 20% of respondents reported that their employer provided accommodations. For employees with migraine, workplace accommodations immensely help them manage triggers and symptoms. Talking to your employer is the first step to getting workplace accommodations. By advocating for yourself, you will be able to get the accommodations and resources needed for your migraine.
To advocate for himself better in the workplace, Tony freely talks about his migraine with his colleagues. “Everybody knows I [have] migraine. I don’t make a secret of it. I make no apology for it,” he says.
Preventing Migraine Attacks From Screen Time
If you work a job that requires a lot of time spent in front of a computer screen, managing migraine becomes a balancing act. But there are ways to help reduce the risk of triggering an attack. Consider some of the ways below for preventing migraine attacks.
1) Adjust lighting
Dimming the lights in the room or the brightness of the computer screen or turning the screen to night mode can help with triggering or worsening of an attack or headaches.
2) Take frequent breaks
This goes without saying, but take a break when you need them. When you take a break, it is recommended you do not look at another screen, e.g. your phone, TV, etc.
3) Measure the distance
If eyestrain is a trigger, keep a distance of 20 to 25 inches between you and the monitor.
4) Using a screen protector
Anti-glare screen protectors can also help with preventing eyestrain.
5) Limiting blue light
Blue light is the highest energy of light the human eye can see. As such, it is very bright. If bright lights are a migraine trigger, it may help to adjust the blue light on your screen, get a blue light screen filter, or wear blue light glasses.
6) Printing it out
While not exactly environmentally-friendly, printing out documents and reading them on paper will reduce screen time and the chances of triggering a migraine attack.
Migraine triggers can be unpredictable, especially in the workplace. But it is not impossible to reduce the risk of attacks. Be mindful of your triggers and symptoms. In addition, talk to your employer about workplace accommodations and advocate for yourself. Employers should consider how migraine can affect not only their employees, but also the organization.
With migraine being a leading cause of employee absenteeism and presenteeism, EU employers lose €88.3 billion annually. Education programs like the Migraine Fitness at Work™ (MFAW) program are one of the best ways to foster a supportive workplace environment. By educating colleagues about the impact of migraine, it will help dispel misconceptions and allow better understanding.