Understanding migraine is the first step to supporting those who experience it. Learn about common symptoms and the phases of an attack so you can help create a more migraine-friendly workplace.
Migraine impacts more than 1 billion people globally, so it’s likely you work with someone who has migraine. Migraine is not just a bad headache. It is a disabling neurological disease with different symptoms and treatment options than other headache disorders.
Knowing the common symptoms of migraine is important to understanding what people with migraine experience. This can help to learn how migraine affects their personal and professional lives.
Classic Signs and Symptoms of Migraine
Many people associate head pain with a migraine attack. While head pain is a common symptom, it’s only one of the many symptoms that can make up an attack. Common migraine symptoms include:
- Head pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia) and/or smells (osmophobia)
- Visual or sensory disturbances (including temporary vision loss)
- Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety or depressed mood
- Congestion and sinus issues
- Numbness or tingling
- Neck pain
The Four Phases of a Migraine Attack
A migraine attack is made up of four phases: prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome. By definition, the headache phase typically lasts from four to 72 hours, but it can unfortunately last longer. The prodrome and postdrome can each last up to two days. Typically the aura lasts up to one hour but can last longer. Not everybody with migraine goes through all four phases during every attack. And each phase can vary in length for different people.
Let’s explore the symptoms and typical length of each phase:
- Prodrome. The earliest phase of a migraine attack can begin up to 48 hours before the start of head pain. During the prodrome phase, the brain goes through changes that affect bodily functions. These changes can cause yawning, fatigue, mood changes, increased urination, difficulty concentrating, neck stiffness, nausea or gastrointestinal (digestion) issues and sensitivity to light and sound. These pre-attack symptoms vary from person to person and can overlap with symptoms in the other phases.
- Aura. About 25% to 30% of people experience migraine aura. Aura is a set of sensory disturbances that start before the headache phase. These symptoms usually last from five to 60 minutes. Signs of aura usually involve visual disturbances (blurry vision or seeing spots, zigzags or flashes). They can also include sensory changes (feelings of numbness or tingling) or speech and language problems (difficulty forming the right words or slurred speech). About 4% of people with migraine experience aura without headache.
- Headache. The headache phase comes with intense pain on one or both sides of the head. This pain can last for several hours or up to three days. People often have symptoms of nausea or vomiting; difficulties with sleep; mood changes; neck pain; and sensitivity to light, sound and smell. Head pain can prevent people from participating in work, school and everyday activities.
- Postdrome. Following the headache phase, about two-thirds of people experience postdrome. This phase is also known as a “migraine hangover.” Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty with concentration and comprehension, dizziness, sensitivity to light and neck stiffness. This phase may last 24 to 48 hours.
Knowing the four phases and their symptoms can help people in the workplace recognize the signs of a migraine attack. Seeing the early warning signs can help prevent or reduce the intensity or length of the attack.
How can you help an employee or coworker with migraine?
To help an employee or coworker with migraine, be a compassionate ally. Speak up about accommodations that can help employees with migraine. This could include removing potential triggers in the work environment or establishing migraine-friendly policies related to schedules, time off and breaks. Accommodations not only help promote physical and mental wellness, but they also show that your company has empathy and awareness for this debilitating disease.
For More Information About Migraine
Migraine is best managed in the workplace when employees and employers work together. To improve the workplace, often the first step is to increase everyone’s awareness and understanding of migraine through education. IHS-GPAC’s Migraine Fitness at Work (MFAW) is a customizable, video-based educational program that works to empower employees and reduce the stigma of migraine.
Workplace support and accommodations decrease migraine-related absences, short-term disability claims and presenteeism (times when employees are present at work but not as productive as they could be). Based on available research, lost productivity due to migraine costs employers in the U.S. up to $50 billion and in the EU £88.3 billion annually.1
At IHS-GPAC, we know how disabling migraine can be. With the wide range of symptoms and the extended length of attacks, this disease often affects people while at work. Our mission is to provide education and support. There is help available to make your workplace more migraine-friendly, so employees and employers alike can reap the benefits.
¹IHS-GPAC Impact Report 2020-2021.