I have a close girlfriend who lives in fear of getting laid low with a pounding headache that starts in her neck, moves upward to her temples, and settles into a piercing pain in her eyes -- in other words, a migraine. 

Susan Hutchinson, MD, a medical advisor for MigraineX, says that in any given year migraine headaches affect 13 percent of the adult population. This means that roughly 36 million Americans suffer from what can be anything from a few-hour inconvenience to a debilitating condition.

I myself suffer a few times a year from these killer headaches, and can only image what it must be like to live with them on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

"There is a huge economic and personal burden associated with this condition including missed days at work, missed time with family, and lost productivity at work," says Dr. Hutchinson.

What exactly triggers a migraine?

Hutchinson explains that underlying many migraines is a highly sensitive nervous system which can be activated by a myriad of workplace triggers. "Migraine triggers vary from one individual to another," says Hutchinson. Some common triggers include:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Hormonal changes in women
  • Food additives or preservatives such as MSG or sulfites
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Air quality
  • Stress
  • Changes in barometric pressure
  • Fragrances such as a fellow employee's perfume
  • Missed meals
  • Irregular work hours

Part of the problem is that migraines are not just "another headache." Associated symptoms can include nausea, sensitivity to light, noise and smells, and a lack of concentration and focus.

People with migraines often describe their experience as being in a "fog."

And make no mistake about it: Migraines can seriously impact productivity. "Many migraine sufferers stay at work even when they are not fully functional," says Hutchinson.

Part of migraine prevention is identifying the triggers and then minimizing or avoiding them. Other solutions to prevent migraines are all over the map and include everything from meditation to medication.    

The four phases of a migraine headache. 

In order to treat a migraine effectively, Dr. Hutchinson says it's important to understand the different phases of a headache.

  1. Prodrome phase: This is the first potential phase of a migraine attack and can begin days before the actual onset of a migraine. It's often the symptoms that give people a "warning sign" the headache is coming.
  2. Aura phase: This is where visible symptoms show that a migraine is on its way -- dizziness, blurred vision and hearing issues can be part of this phase.
  3.  Migraine headache occurs.
  4. Postdrome phase: Many people often feel "hungover" after a migraine. Symptoms can include: fatigue, moodiness or lowered levels of concentration, which can last for hours or even days following the headache episode.

Strategies to prevent and minimize migraines. 

Despite all attempts at prevention, attacks can still occur. When this happens, there are strategies that can help minimize the disability associated with an attack at the various stages. For example:

  • Taking migraine-specific (and doctor-prescribed) medications such as triptans and beta blockers early in an attack can short-cut it.
  • Lying down in a dark, quiet room for 30 minutes at the onset of an attack.
  • Massage and other physical therapies. Message, yoga, tai chi, meditation, acupuncture and other similar body awareness and muscle relaxation techniques.  
  • Supplements. Several studies have shown that in some cases, and with particular protocols, taking vitamin B, CoQ10 and an herb called butterbur can help prevent migraines. 

It's important to note that consulting with a medical professional before embarking on any particular protocol, supplement or medication is an important course of action.

Individual and workplace management of migraines. 

While the individual management of migraines is critical, company management counts as well. Migraines are considered a chronic condition with periodic exacerbation that could cause absences from work.

As such an employee and their headache provider can complete an FMLA form and put it on file, so that absences from work due to a migraine cannot be used against the individual as a cause for job dismissal. 

Lastly, keep in mind that new and emerging treatments are coming out all the time. Staying on top of the research is key to putting together an effective treatment plan -- both as an individual and for those in your business for whom work can become a headache.