Migraines Can Affect Ability to Work, Study Results Show


Headache disorders most affect the ability to do physical labor, decision-making skills, and memory, investigators from the University of Copenhagen say.

Results of a study from the University of Copenhagen showed the frequent tension headaches and migraines can negatively affect the ability to work.

Untreated migraine attacks can last anywhere between 4 and 72 hours, and tension headaches can last an entire week, according to the investigators, which can get in the way of performing job tasks.

“It is especially the ability to remember, make quick decisions, and do hard physical work that cause difficulties for people with these headache disorders,” Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen, PhD, author of the study, said in a statement.

She hopes that the results of the study can shed light on how headaches affect individuals’ working life.

Migraines are the main cause of impairment for individuals who are under aged 50 years, and they have negative effects on productivity, Nabe-Nielsen said.

Adapting work to an individual’s migraine depends on the type of work, she said.

For example, individuals who work in academia might be able to leave work earlier, postpone certain tasks, or work from home. But other workers, such as health care industry employees, may not be able to adjust their working hours or postpone tasks, which may result in them taking sick days, Nabe-Nielsen said.

Employees and managers should work together to find a solution, as they might be able to collaborate on what tasks should be prioritized, find a quite space until the pain has subsided, or identify tasks that can be achieved at a leisurely pace, she said.

Headache disorders, such as migraines, are often misunderstood and overlooked.

“Most people have experienced headaches. Therefore, it may be difficult to understand how debilitating migraine and frequent headaches may be for a colleague, friend, or family member,” Nabe-Nielsen said.

“People still have the notion that it will be sufficient to swallow a pill,” she said.

Lack of knowledge in the general population about the importance of headache disorders contributes to how individuals approach solutions, Nabe-Nielsen said.

For example, painkillers can lead to more headaches instead of easing them.

Investigators used self-reported information from more than 5000 individuals with different educational backgrounds.

The information collected included data on frequent headaches and migraines, their description of the ability to copy with 7 different types of job tasks, and the use of painkillers.

Participants also answered questions about their depressive symptoms, overall health, and pain in joints and muscles. Investigators found that these factors played an important role in the association between headache disorders and the ability to work.

The results of previous studies have shown that headaches and joint and muscle pain coincide with depressive symptoms, so mood changes and neck pain could be warning signs of a migraine attack.

Investigators found that the individuals least able to complete their work among those who suffered from severe headaches were those who did not use painkillers and those who used painkillers regularly.

This could indicate that the group taking painkillers daily may not receive a treatment that works as intended and they might also suffer from headaches that are triggered by medication overuse, Nabe-Nielsen said.

On the other hand, those who do not take any medications are undermedicated, perhaps because they do not consider their illnesses to be severe enough for medical attention, she said.

Based on the study, investigators made 3 recommendations for individuals with migraines or tension headaches:

  • Employees and managers should discuss the possibility of adapting work during headache or migraine attacks to reduce absenteeism. This includes performing tasks that less cognitively, emotionally, and physically demanding or working in a room with less noise;
  • Individuals should see their doctors for advice and possible medical treatment; and
  • Mental health issues and other pain should be addressed to improve the overall quality of life among individuals with headache disorders.


Overlooked disease: tens of thousands of people have problems at work. EurekAlert. News release. February 9, 2022. Accessed March 7, 2022. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/942900

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