What Are Migraine Triggers? 9 Things People With Migraines Do To Keep Their Headaches At Bay
When you get migraines with any kind of regularity, it can be super frustrating because otherwise, you look totally healthy. But, as anyone who battles migraines knows, navigating daily life requires stealth preparation to avoid migraine triggers — and sometimes, people who don't get migraines just won't understand. Things people don't realize you're doing because you're avoiding migraine triggers run the gamut from wearing sunglasses indoors to turning bright rooms into dark caves, and more. While new studies suggest that migraines might be a self-defense mechanism against stress, or migraines could be related to anxiety and depression, nothing is more stressful and anxiety inducing than trying to avoid triggers.
Managing the stress of both worrying that you're going to have a migraine coupled with managing the stress of actually having migraines can become a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break. In addition to the pain of an active migraine, many people experience symptoms before and after and attack, which can last from between four to 72 hours, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. And a migraine is not the same thing as a bad headache: A migraine is a neurological disorder that causes painful pulsations and can result in debilitating pain that affects your ability to live your life.
If you feel like doctors are mostly guessing when it comes to treating migraines, you're not wrong. While migraines are the third most prevalent illness in the world, the Migraine Research Foundation reported that it's an under diagnosed and misunderstood condition, and that in 2017 there were only 500,000 certified headache specialists in the U.S. for 38 million sufferers. Because of this, patients have to be their own first line of defense, often by doing some things that other people don't realize you're doing because you have migraines.
1. Wearing Sunglasses Indoors
If you suffer from migraines, you might feel alone. Personally, I hardly know anyone else in my daily life who either has migraines, or has any understanding of what it's like to be struck down by migraine pain. Because of this I often find myself explaining my odd behavior — like why I won't take my sunglass off in a grocery store, or any other place lit by fluorescent lights, which are a huge trigger for my migraines. And I'm not alone.
“Patients with migraine are photophobic (more sensitive to light), even when they don’t have a headache, compared to non-migraineurs,” Dr. Andrew Hershey told the New York Times. “Thus being exposed to bright lights (fluorescent, beach, snow, etc.) when hypersensitized (sleep deprived, menstrual period, skipping meals, having greater than one headache per week) may push the patient over the edge."
So, if your friend doesn't want to remove their shades indoors, they're not trying to be too cool for school. They're protecting themselves against a potential migraine trigger.
2. Re-Configuring Their Work Station
I once landed a dream job that almost turned into a nightmare because of the dreaded overhead lighting. The office space for my department was basically a cubicle farm located in a converted warehouse with horrible overhead lighting. By day three of my new job I was on my third migraine, and I was in so much pain I prepared to resign because I knew I could not continue to work somewhere that triggered a migraine every single day.
As I got up to go over and talk to my boss, I spotted another nearby cubicle covered in black boards so it looked like it had a roof. I immediately went over to the cubicle house and introduced myself to its owner. Then I immediately asked where he got those rad boards to cover his workspace. A quick trip to the art department and a savvy positioning of light-blocking boards saved me from having to leave my job.
"In some cases, this photosensitivity can be caused by the Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder that reduces the brain’s ability to process specific wavelengths of light," the website Make Great Light noted. Fluorescent lights in particular emit more waves of blue light, which can be more triggering than other forms of light. At another job, I personally asked the maintenance department to remove the lights directly over my desk. If the lighting in your office is triggering your headaches, know that there are workarounds — but it might not be apparent why you're doing it.
3. Avoiding Certain Smells (Like That Perfume You're Wearing)
If you have a friend who suffers from migraines who doesn't want to stand near you, ride in the car with you, or come to your house, it might be because you stink. Not in the you-need-a-shower kind of way, but in the you're-wearing-too-much-perfume kind of way. According to Migraine.com, a 2007 study found that 64 percent of people reported perfume and cologne as a trigger for migraine attacks.
This is a big one for me — so much so that I carry peppermint oil with me at all times so I can put it under my nose if I encounter someone who took a bath in perfume or body spray. Other smells that can do me in include almost all unnatural, and some natural, cleaning products, any kind of air freshener with the exception of some natural citrus scents, scented candles, fabric softener, and incense.
I'm comfortable enough to ask people I know not to wear perfume around me. If a friend asks you to do this, it's not because they're trying to ruin your perfume game — it's because you're literally giving them a headache.
4. Being A Party Pooper
One lesson it took me a really long time to learn is that sleep deprivation will ultimately lead to a migraine. "Existing studies had already shown that migraineurs exhibit higher levels of oxidative stress, and the common triggers for migraine — such as noise, sleep deprivation, and air pollution — seem to worsen this imbalance," according to a new theory by Dr. Jonathan M. Borkum, a researcher from the University of Maine in Orono, published in Medical News Today.
If Dr. Borkum's theory is true, migraineurs already process stress poorly, so introducing a trigger, like not getting enough sleep, is almost certain to result in an attack. I used to go days at a time on between four-to-six hours of sleep a night, and I routinely got more migraines. Now I know that if I don't get enough sleep, I'm basically asking for a migraine.
If you have a friend who needs to leave the party early, or who regularly declines invitations to go out late, it's not because they don't like you or think you and your ideas aren't super fun. It might be because they're just trying to stay well, and a big part of that is getting enough sack time.
5. Going To Extreme Lengths To Get Coffee
Once, in a remote part of Hawaii, I drove an hour to find a coffee shop because the coffee served at the meditation retreat I was at just wasn't cutting it, and I had a terrible headache. I was fighting with a friend over the keys to our rental car because she thought I'd lost my damn mind. But I also suffer from migraines, and if I skip my coffee, I'll definitely get one. Driving an hour into town for some real coffee made complete sense to me. I've also eaten coffee beans right out of the bag for a caffeine fix.
According to Migraine.com, caffeine is an additive in many headache and migraine medications because it can help open constricted blood vessels, and aid in medication absorption. Additionally, if someone who is a regular coffee drinker skips their morning java, a rebound headache can be a common side effect. If someone makes what seems like an unreasonable request to get some caffeine into their body, they're probably not trying to be difficult. They're just trying to make sure a rebound headache doesn't spiral into a migraine.
6. Avoiding Weather Changes
You know who's not singing in the rain? People who suffer from migraines. Dramatic changes in temperature and even small changes in humidity and barometric pressure can trigger a migraine for me. While I know a lot of people don't buy into this, the Mayo Clinic reported that, "A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine." The issue is so common that there are multiple lists floating around on the internet about the best and worst cities to live in for people with weather-related migraines.
Personally, when I moved from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles five years ago my migraines decreased dramatically due to California's (mostly) stable climate. I do keep pressure-stabilizing ear plugs in my freezer, and I have an app that alerts me when there is a predicted change in barometric pressure so I can pop them in before I get a migraine. If someone declines to go on a ski trip to the Pacific Northwest, or even to San Francisco, it's not because they have no sense of adventure — it's because migraines suck, and they don't want to get one because of the weather.
It took me years of denial, and many painful migraines, to accept my weather triggers. There are certain things that just aren't worth it for me to do, no matter how fun they sound. The pain price is just too high.
7. Avoiding Certain Foods
Once, when I was visiting my family in Ohio, I went into a wine store and asked if they had organic, sulfite-free wine. The clerk looked at me like I had two heads. I am totally not trying to be bougie when I request something like this. I just know that certain types of wine, most beers, and liquors are going to give me a migraine.
The Mayo Clinic reported that in addition to alcohol, foods like aged cheeses, salty foods, and processed foods may trigger migraines. Additionally, skipping meals or fasting can also be a trigger for some people. Processed foods and skipping meals is another biggie for me.
If you're with someone who insists they need to eat ASAP, go with them to the nearest café. Or, if you're at a restaurant with a friend who seems to be asking the waiter a lot of annoying questions about the menu, like questions about wines, cheeses, or MSG, it's likely because they know that consuming these items could trigger a migraine.
8. Applying Oils To The Head & Neck
There are a lot of things I do on a regular basis to try to avoid getting a migraine because once I get one, I'm out of commission for two to three days. If you think your friend has been recruited to some sort of pyramid scheme because they are constantly applying some type of essential oil to their head, neck, and even inside their mouth, that's probably not the case.
I carry three to four oils with me most of the time. If I feel a migraine coming on, and I want to try avoid taking an abortive prescription that's going to knock me out, I put frankincense on the roof of my mouth, peppermint oil on my neck, shoulders and temples, and thieves oil on my cheeks. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't, but I'm so used to it that I forget I'm even doing it until I'm in a new environment and someone asks me about my new age-y practices.
9. Speaking Softy
If someone who suffers from migraines is suddenly barely speaking above a whisper, they might be in the throes of an attack. When I have an active migraine, even talking in a whisper feels like I am screaming. "I speak very softly. It hurts to talk at a normal volume. I have stopped singing in the choir. To me, it sounds like I am yelling and my own voice may trigger a migraine," one migraine sufferer told The Mighty.
While it feels like we're yelling, you might not be able to hear us. Trust me, no one who is whispering while they have a migraine is trying to be difficult. It's just really, really hard to talk. Because migraines are largely invisible, and many sufferers can plow forward and fake being well if they have no choice, the level of pain is not taken seriously by many people. And, because no one likes to moan and groan about being sick all of the time, you may not even know that a close friend has migraines.
I recently took a test that factored in pre-migraine symptoms, time spent having migraines, and post-migraine symptoms. The results showed that I have a 150 days a year disrupted by migraines. Who can sit on the sidelines for almost six months? Personally, unless I am throwing up or extremely dizzy, if I have to do something, I can force myself to do it. It doesn't mean I'm not in pain, and this definitely isn't the case for everyone. Migraine sufferers are used to being in pain. Basically, these little tricks are how I've learned to survive with my migraines.