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How Nurses Cope With Migraines (Tips for Nurses From Nurses)

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated May 27, 2022
    Learn how nurses who experience migraines can manage and treat migraines while caring for patients.

    Hospital hallways are filled with bright lights. Alarms are constantly sounding off in your patients’ rooms. There are many triggers that can cause nurses to experience migraines at work, but don’t cancel your shift just yet.

    In this article, we hear from nurses who have firsthand experience managing migraines while working at the bedside. They share tips to help you stay ahead of migraines so you can live a happier nurse life.

    Common Migraine Triggers and Symptoms

    A migraine is a neurological condition characterized by severe headaches or head throbbing, along with various limiting, sometimes debilitating, symptoms.

    Whitney Hanken, NP, practices pain management with a focus on migraines. She explains the basics of how a migraine works: “A person with migraine’s brain is hypersensitive to stimuli or has a lower threshold for certain stimuli.”

    This causes blood vessels to relax, alerting the brain to activate an inflammatory response. A painful headache occurs as a result of the inflammatory process. Depending on where the migraine originates, Hanken says a person may experience sensory disturbances or auras. Migraines typically occur across the temples and face, or the back of the head and neck.

    “The phases of a migraine include prodrome, aura, migraine (the painful part), and postdrome. Each phase can last hours to days,” says Hanken.

    Migraines can be caused by a number of triggers such as environmental factors or hormonal changes. Hanken says the most common migraine triggers she sees in her practice are:

    • Strong smells
    • Specific foods, food additives, or beverages
    • Fluorescent lighting
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Hormonal changes
    • Stress

    Migraine symptoms are different for everyone. According to the American Migraine Foundation, pain can occur on one or both sides of the head, at the front or back. Many people describe a throbbing, pounding, or pulsating pain. Physical activity and movement may make head pain worse.

    Other migraine symptoms may include nausea and vomiting or increased sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells.

    To effectively manage a migraine, it’s best to be diagnosed by a primary care or specialty provider. Be prepared with a record of your symptoms, patterns, and events leading up to your migraines. This will equip your provider with the data to diagnose a migraine and create a treatment plan.

    Managing Migraines as a Nurse

    Because migraines vary in symptoms and severity by person, it’s important to know how your migraine will affect your work as a nurse. Do you need to go home for the day when a migraine hits, or can you return to patient care after a few minutes of rest?

    Nicole Hart, LPN, recalls how she felt when she experienced migraines while working as a nurse.

    “I would typically experience pain on one side of my head, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, and fatigue,” she says. Hart describes losing her ability to think clearly and fearing she’d make an error while caring for patients.

    Hart saw a neurologist and created a treatment plan that worked for her. Between identifying her triggers, making lifestyle changes, and creating a rescue plan, she was able to reduce her number of migraine days per month.

    “What has actually helped me significantly is a combination of three things,” she says. She began taking magnesium, eating more food, and drinking more water. If a migraine came on at work, she always kept rescue medication available.

    Courtney Beck, FNP, became a migraine expert at an early age. After suffering chronic migraines for more than 20 years, she now has a virtual health consulting practice that helps migraine sufferers thrive.

    [ity] to lights and sounds, irritab[ility], and food cravings.”

    Becks says being in tune with her body and knowing how to respond to subtle changes has helped her manage migraines while working as a nurse.

    5 Ways to Treat and Prevent Migraines

    According to Migraine.com, 9 out of 10 people suffering from a migraine attack cannot work or perform daily activities. If you’re a nurse suffering from migraines, you’ve likely had to call in sick a time or two.

    We’re here to help you save your paid-time off and put it toward resting on a beach instead of a dark room. Here are some tips from nurses for preventing migraines to stay ahead of the pain — and what to do when you’re experiencing one at work.

    1. Drink Water and Don’t Skip Meals

    Staying hydrated is an important way to stay ahead of and treat migraines. To ensure you’re getting the right amount of water per day, Hart says to “take your total body weight (in pounds) and divide it by two. That will give you the minimum number of ounces you should be drinking daily.”

    When Hart first started experiencing migraines, she discovered that she was undereating. This led to poor sleep, which was one of her migraine triggers. Once she began eating more and sleeping better, she was able to get her migraines under control.

    She advises nurses to avoid skipping meals and stay hydrated.

    2. Track Your Symptoms

    To identify your migraine triggers, experts suggest keeping a migraine diary. Here you can document the events leading up to a migraine like what you ate, how you slept, or your menstrual cycle. This helps you and your provider see trends to identify your triggers. You can also use a smartphone app to keep a record of migraine symptoms.

    To prevent migraine symptoms from worsening, Hart says to listen to your body. If she knew she slept poorly the night before, she would be more aware to watch for symptoms of an impending migraine at work.

    3. Keep a Migraine Kit

    Make some space in your work bag for a preparation kit to support your migraine brain. If you feel a migraine approaching, Beck suggests dimming desk lights and computer screens if it’s an option.

    For migraine relief on the job, Beck keeps these items in her migraine kit:

    • Ginger tincture
    • Snacks
    • Peppermint oil
    • Magnesium
    • Electrolyte packets
    • Blue light glasses

    4. Practice Relaxation Exercises

    When you work in a healthcare setting, stressors are almost always unavoidable. Try to find ways to quiet your mind when you can. Hanken recommends trying guided meditations to “help decompress your nervous system after a rough day, or better yet, make it a part of your routine for even greater benefits!” Her favorite one is this relaxing meditation channel.

    5. Consult Your Primary Care Provider

    As you explore ways to manage your migraines, it’s important to establish a partnership with your primary care provider. Together you can discuss a medical treatment plan that’s right for you. Your provider may suggest taking supplements like magnesium or prescribe an as-needed medication for migraine relief. Always consult with your provider to find a regimen that works for your body.

    A migraine treatment plan should involve more than medications. Hanken says to discuss with your provider how migraines impact your life.

    She says, “I have noticed many patients (especially healthcare workers!) tend to downplay their symptoms and are complacent with just ‘good enough’ relief. Pain freedom is possible!”

    How Nursing Workplaces Can Help Migraine Sufferers

    If you’re a nurse experiencing migraines, always remember to be your own advocate, especially at work. Hart says to speak up if a migraine is preventing you from providing quality patient care. Always listen to your body’s basic needs — eating food and drinking water are essential to managing migraines, so make time for breaks while on shift.

    “You deserve breaks,” Hart says. “You deserve to be able to sit down and eat a meal.”

    Beck says that workplaces can be supportive of nurses who experience migraines by making environmental changes. Employers should allow nurses to take uninterrupted breaks and keep water at the nurse’s station. Staff can be mindful of extra stimuli by silencing alarms and dimming the lights when possible.

    As a nurse suffering from migraines, be open with your family, coworkers, and healthcare providers about your experience. When those around you are aware of your needs, they’ll be more prepared to support you.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Nicole Hart, LPN

    Nicole Hart, LPN

    Nicole Hart is a licensed practical nurse and worked as a nurse for five years. After giving birth to her youngest child in 2019, she decided to step away from bedside nursing to work from home. She then decided to change career paths and became a certified nutrition coach. She is now the owner of The Hart Life LLCM. She has helped dozens of women transform their bodies, shift their mindset around food, and improve their mental and physical health.

    Portrait of Courtney Beck, FNP

    Courtney Beck, FNP

    Courtney Beck is a family nurse practitioner who has a passion for helping people with migraines. She has lived the life of chronic migraine and has suffered for over 20 years. With the knowledge she has gained as a nurse, she is able to help migraine sufferers gain back their life in a sustainable way. She wants everyone to thrive with migraines, not just survive.

    Portrait of Whitney Hanken, NP

    Whitney Hanken, NP

    Whitney Hanken is a nurse practitioner from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She practices pain management with a focus on migraine treatment. She earned her associate degree in nursing from Northeast Iowa Community College in 2007, followed by her bachelor’s degree from Upper Iowa University. She completed her master’s degree in nursing as a nurse practitioner with certification in adult and geriatric acute care from Allen College in Waterloo, Iowa. She is board certified with the ANCC and a member of the American Headache Society.