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Does a Migraine-Proof Job Exist?

Does a Migraine-Proof Job Exist?

Recently a visitor to Migraine.com’s Q&A page inquired about whether there might be a particular career or job that is less likely to trigger migraine attacks. I jumped on answering the question, and had enough to say that I realized I could write a whole article on the topic.

Making it through some part-time jobs

I’m 45 years old and have been chronic since I was 30, but my migraine disease has always been significant enough that my life was seriously affected. When I was 18 I got my first job: gift wrapping at a downtown department store during my university’s long holiday break. During the summer, I was a daytime babysitter for a family with three kids. My sophomore year, I began working in the university bookstore. These were part-time jobs, mainly for spending money, except for the babysitting which was in a relatively fragrance-free home with good kids. My migraine frequency remained heavy episodic. Bothersome, but not life-shattering.

Episodic migraine worsening through college

In the middle of my third year of college, things got away from me a little bit. I missed my long-distance boyfriend; my new Honors English professor, with whom I had to spend countless hours, was boring and unlikeable. My two roommates wanted to run a 5k and I felt like if I didn’t train with them, I would never see them, and imagined they might not even “like” me anymore. I ran the 5k, which astonishes me now. I came in literally last. We lived off-campus in an old house with a sagging roof, preparing all our own meals, walking up a steep hill to go anywhere.

Not surprisingly, my migraine attacks increased during this time, and so did my depression, though I still loved my bookstore job. In the previous two “healthier” years, my friends had to take me to the local hospital and student health center multiple times, but at least I was usually making it to class. Now, I no longer was, and was occasionally missing work as well. As fall quarter came to a close, I left for good.

Maintaining a manager position

I transferred to the comparable state school in my home town, living in my childhood bedroom and working year-round at the department store. My boyfriend had started college in a nearby city, but was two hours away rather than four so I saw him more often. I worked my way up to being the Men’s Department Manager and a “key holder,” meaning I was sometimes acting manager. I was closer to all my doctors and it was during this period that I tried acupuncture and hypnosis, which were spectacular failures. But I was happier at work than at school or home. I felt the department store was definitely not contributing to migraine, the frequency of which stayed about the same.

Then the company, part of a state-wide clothing store chain based in my home town, was sold to a bigger department store chain. Everyone in the main office and warehouse was laid off, and I became an employee of the new company, which did not believe a woman should be running the Men’s Department. I stayed through the transition, which was a heartbreaking nightmare, but since I had finally graduated, I decided the time was right to leave. I had earned a bachelor of arts in what was called “Humanities and Business,” which was actually three different majors my advisor had helped me to mesh into a planned program, as if I’d meant to do it. And all I knew was clothing retail. So I applied to stores all over the area, mainly in the city 30 miles north. I ended up as a key holder at a trendy, commission-based store at the largest, busiest, and now last mall, a 40-minute drive away.

Increased stress and more migraine attacks

My migraine attacks definitely increased during this time, but there were many factors contributing to the unhappiness and discomfort in my life. I had lost a job I adored because the company no longer existed; my seven years on-and-off boyfriend and I had broken up (again); I’d graduated from college, practically against my will; my salary was based on how much I sold (not much), and I worked with beautiful almost-teenagers. Much of what I did make went to purchase Doc Martens and Lucky Jeans on layaway with my 40% discount. I was smoking more cigarettes and had to drive an hour and twenty minutes per day on a busy highway. My best friend (and current roommate) had become engaged.

I was miserable. After six months, I drove past a Family Video marquis on the way to an appointment with my neurologist that said “Managers Needed: $7.50 per hour” and I applied and got the job. Anything to get out of that mall, but unfortunately, I had to drive even farther to get to the video store, I had to wear bland clothing and cover my tattoos, and I worked with (and for) people who weren’t very smart. I knew driving 45 minutes to get to a menial job and then driving 45 minutes home was a silly thing to do and that it might be worsening my migraine situation. Interestingly, being a video store clerk was still better than selling expensive but cheaply made trendy clothing at the mall.

New long term job but continued worsening migraine

I needed something even better though, and obviously, something closer. As it turned out, I didn’t need to look farther than one building over from the apartment where I was living downtown. The privately-owned coffee shop / used bookstore had a HELP WANTED sign in the window, and the rest was history, literally, because I worked there for the next nine years. It was where I met my husband, my friends, and discovered my true self… but instead of improving over time as my life settled into place, my migraine attacks gradually increased in severity and frequency.

I only had to walk downstairs to get to work (and though I moved several times, I never had to travel farther than a few blocks), and I was happy… but my health went downhill. Botox, hospitalizations, a slew of different preventatives (you know the drill) all failed. Was it the smell of the coffees and syrups? The dust from the books? Standing in one place for so long? Serving harried customers? Working for a temperamental boss?

Starting a family and needing to leave my job

John and I got married, and three years later got pregnant. I hoped I might improve during pregnancy, as some do, but I was so, so sick. I missed a lot of work, took maternity leave early, and came back part time, chronic. I finally quit, just needing some kind of change. The fluorescent lights? The constant bang and surge of the espresso machine? It had to be the job. I had a party for myself during my last shift, and cried a lot, and told myself that I had outgrown the coffee shop. My boss said “maybe you’ll find you won’t get so many headaches working somewhere else.”

My next job was in a small chain bookstore in our quiet local mall. The shop had no windows and there wasn’t much to do, but there were books, and my boss was someone I’d worked with before, and my retired French teacher was a new colleague. I liked the job very much but didn’t get to find out if my migraine disease would eventually improve, because four months after I was hired, we were notified by Borders, Inc, that Waldenbooks stores were being phased out, and we were going to shut down. I stayed through the transition, again, and was laid off.

Seraching for a new job with low triggers

It took me a long time to find a job after that. I collected unemployment and searched, finally learning about a position with the city’s Parks & Rec department. This would be a government job, and I felt like a trained poodle with all the hoop-jumping I had to do through the interview process. I also had to remove my facial piercings and make sure my tattoos were covered, besides which, if I got the job I’d be working in a community center, essentially a gym, when I am averse to exercise and sports. But I’d be sitting in an ergonomically-correct chair, at a computer in a newly built structure, answering the phone and assisting patrons, which seemed good, migraine-wise. About a month after my first interview, I learned I had the job.

The arrival of a baby and daily chronic migraine

This job paid well. It had good benefits. It went very smoothly at first. The only problem for my head was that the building, which I quickly dubbed the Glass Palace, had so much glass at its front that my evening shifts always came with blinding sun. I told my superiors, and they began working on a solution. To this day, beautiful mosaic window coverings hang in the spot where the ninja sunset stealthily beams in every night. I was promoted to full time despite the recession. The next thing I knew, I was pregnant.

We’d wanted a second child, but could not try for one with good conscience due to health and money considerations. But this baby was meant to be. I was 35, and the high risk pregnancy was miserable the whole way through. The tests showed the fetus was a healthy girl even though I’d used DHE before my pregnancy test. After Zo was born early by emergency c-section, I had two life-changing gifts to take home: an adorable baby, and chronic daily migraine.

Trying everything… and still being resented by colleague

When my maternity leave was over, I fought like hell to stay in that job. I tried Botox again, used FMLA to have a hysterectomy, visited a new neurologist at a renowned hospital, re-tried all the drugs that had failed before, went on a gluten-free diet, had cranial-sacral massage and physical therapy and biofeedback. By the end, I was spending my dinner breaks (and then some) curled up on the staff room floor in the dark, stumbling out of shifts early to vomit in the parking lot on the way to my car, often driving straight to the emergency room. I missed so many days that my colleagues, naturally, started to resent me, and then I had workplace drama to contend with. Still, I wondered. Maybe a chemical they used to clean the floors? Perhaps staring into a computer screen for 8 hours a day wasn’t a good thing after all?

Re-entering the workforce

I resigned five years after taking the job. I pulled my retirement so the financial hit wouldn’t be so dramatic, thinking I’d look for a new job in about six months. But once home, I didn’t get better. Because it wasn’t any of the jobs I’d had that made my migraine disease increase. It was aging, and hormones, and just the illness itself. I applied for disability and received approval on my first try, began the clinical trials, started working from home, and finally, as you know, improved enough to re-enter the workforce.

A library! Now there is a migraine-proof job, I thought. But the building’s heat and the physical nature of shelving library books immediately proved me wrong. There is no such thing as a headache-free career if you have migraine disease. So many factors trigger our pain that it would be completely impossible to find a setting where none of them are present. You might as well ask the sun to not rise, which of course many of us do (or at least hope it will hide behind some clouds or nice mosaic window-coverings). Other than avoiding obvious pitfalls like working as a bouncer at a death metal club, or as a mixer at a perfume factory, we just have to do the best we can.

Please feel free to share your “Have Migraine Disease, Will Work” stories in the comments!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • SamGeorge
    2 months ago

    I am currently 56 years old and have had episodic migraines all of my life that were misdiagnosed as sinus headaches until 2004 when they abruptly started surging. In 2006, they went continuous and I was hospitalized for them for 15 days (as much as insurance would cover). In 2007, I went onto disability and remain on it to this day.

    From my own experience and those I have heard from fellow migraineurs, work outside of the home is ill-suited to our unique needs.

    (1) The single best way to address this is to be self-employed so that you can set your own hours and work conditions. Unfortunately, in many fields, that also limits income potential.
    (2) Being able to telecommute from home most or all of the time is the next tier of options, especially if one has flexible hours.
    (3) The third tier is working nearby with very flexible hours.
    (4) The fourth tier is working a 9-5 job with sensitive management and a non-stressful environment.
    (5) Fifth is just a regular, soul-crushing 9-5 regular job in a usual environment.
    (6) Sixth is the job with rotating hours and irregular schedules.
    (7) Seventh is a 9-5 with a psychologically stressful environment.
    (8) Eighth is a job with one or more triggers regularly present, including strong odors, loud noise, sunlight, stress, etc.
    (9) The bottom run of hell is working in a stressful job with demanding hours in an environment chock-full of physical, psychological, and other triggers.
    Personally, if I had to work currently, I would focus on 1-3 and avoid 6-9 like the plague. 4-5 would only be considered if there were nothing in 1-3 that were not available. If 1-5 were unavailable, I would just try to make ends meet until I could retire.

  • Lori
    2 months ago

    I enjoyed this article and totally agree that it really doesn’t matter the job you have as ‘life happens’ and every day is like starting a new book. You never really know what combination could result in a migraine!

  • marti
    2 months ago

    I’m extremely lucky. When the company I work for closed my location about 3 years ago, I got to keep my job and work from home. So I am in total control of lighting, fragrance, sounds – all things that used to trigger a migraine. And I still get migraines. The biggest difference is that now I can take a nap if I need sleep, or turn off all the lights if I need darkness. I can adjust my schedule more easily than before, but no. No job is migraine proof. Some jobs just make coping a little easier.

  • JennOfAllTrades
    2 months ago

    I’ve been getting severe episodic hemiplegic migraines nearly my entire life (40+ years).Outside of the first 5 or 6 years of my life, the longest I’ve ever been migraine free has been 6 months. I’ve had migraine attacks at every job I’ve ever had, so I think the regular triggers are to blame (nitrites, sulfites, irregular eating or sleeping patterns, too much stress or the sudden release of stress, dehydration, really strong smells, sudden change in barometric pressure, too much sugar, etc). I work several part time jobs and one of them is security at music venues-on occasion there is that heavy metal industrial goth band or EDM show-it’s usually not the music that is to blame-it’s the overuse of strobe lights-it doesn’t usually trigger an attack but it is too much like the aura I see when I do have an attack (metallic strobe light that starts out small then engulfs my entire vision in a very short amount of time), so it’s very bothersome to experience. Because it’s a part time gig, I can opt out of working those kinds of shows or ask to be put on a post where I am not exposed to the strobes. A job that I love is as a historical interpreter at a heritage park-I can do most jobs but there are a couple I wouldn’t survive for very long at because those sites have very strong smells and the episodic migraine would probably become chronic if I was exposed to them long term. I am usually in a site where I take care of a medicinal garden (very therapeutic) and have a building to work out of away from the direct heat or cold on days when being outside isn’t a good idea. That job is seasonal so it’s tough to make a living wage with just the other two part time jobs when it’s the off season (now). Finding and getting hired on for full time work has been a challenge-there are always tons of jobs out there, but so many are ones where attendance is key (call centers, factories,etc)-they aren’t very flexible if you have to leave immediately when an attack starts and they want you to just work through it (not possible when you can’t see or even have control over your arms & legs). The last time I got one at work , I was driving a train (a converted Ford F-250 pulling 3 cars) and had to park it blindly before paralysis set in and called my boss on the radio to find a replacement for me to finish out the day. I passed out in the basement of one of the buildings for 2 hours(typical time before Paralysis has passed and I can see again)-when I came to, I was well enough to get myself home. Luckily all my current employers understand-my boss there used to get migraines so he knows how debilitating they are. That’s not true of past employers. I had one who told me, “you should come up with a better excuse than migraines when you call in sick”. That was the last straw for me-he was always a jerk but saying that right to my face with no remorse was so insensitive of him that when I left the company shortly after that, during my exit interview, I told HR what he said, and heard from a coworker that he got demoted as a result (probably should have gotten fired for all the hell he put me through). That job paid well and had amazing benefits, but none of that was worth being treated like that. I didn’t love that job anyway and hated the 18 mile commute each way from the city to the ‘burbs every day. I’m too much of a free spirit to work for Corporate America-I just need to be the entrepreneur I’m meant to be. I think the perfect job for us is doing something we love doing and finding a way to get paid to do it. If you are your own boss, you have full control over everything and if you have an attack, you can go take care of it however you need to without the bureaucracy and insensitivity.

  • Nikita212
    2 months ago

    I was hoping for a happy ending for your story. So sorry that, like most of us, migraine goes on and on.

    I’m only working as a consultant occasionally, myself. My migraines are chronic and I could relate to much of your attempts to treat or cure this disease. At one point I was traveling for 8 hours to see a homeopathic doctor to no avail.

    All I can say is the research continues and maybe one of these days they will find something that really works!

  • Ld5townsend
    2 months ago

    Right!

  • Migraineteach
    2 months ago

    I have had chronic migraines with photo phobia for 4 years now and continue to work full time. I work in a beautiful glass building on a University Campus. Outside my office window is a red exit sign and florescent lights abound. My boss did have my window with the exit sign coated with a dark tinted material which helps some, but the lights are still almost unbearable in my office. I have taken to wearing specialty glasses made for people with photo phobia and tinted prescription glasses under them. I am also always under wide rimmed hats. I continue to teach my college classes and counsel but some days it is almost overwhelming. When I get off from work I go home and crash. I am constantly fatigued, fight depression and now have started having anxiety attacks that I won’t be able to keep up in my job. I understand what you are saying about a perfect job. I have thought about trying to work from home and teach online but some days the computer is just too bright. Family, friends and co-workers don’t understand why I am not the same upbeat person that I was before the migraines became chronic. I can’t call in at work for a migraine. The question would be who will teach your classes? The students are important.

  • 38_years
    2 months ago

    Thank you, thank you! I’m 56 years old and have had migraines since I was 18. Like you, they have gotten progressively worse over the years. You’re right, there is no migraine proof job. My resume looks like “jack of all trades”. My marriage broke up over migraine because I couldn’t work. I’ve declared bankruptcy once due to medical bills, if things don’t improve soon I may have to do so again. I’m waiting for a private insurance company to approve LTD. In the meantime, I’m not being paid, deductions aren’t being taken out for health insurance, and I may face losing coverage soon. Amazingly, given the dire stories I’ve heard, I think Social Security is likely to come through before LTD. I have a law firm helping me with SSDI, and they said if the insurance denies LTD, they will help me with an appeal. I get so angry that all these hoops and red tape have to be dealt with when I feel least able to do it. It’s such a relief to be validated.

  • Ld5townsend
    2 months ago

    Your story mirrors mine, in time and resume shortfalls. I have wondered what was wrong with me, but dealing with migraines probably contributes to behavior that employers don’t like.
    I guess we need to find the jobs that create the least problems, but that is difficult at best. Good luck on your LTD and SSDI.

  • 1scarlett13
    3 months ago

    “There’s gotta be something you can do!” Sick of hearing that. Yes. When I can set my on hours. If it doesnt matter whether I show up or not. When I have unlimited call outs. When my bills are all paid by someone else. Sure! Easy-peasy!

  • Ld5townsend
    2 months ago

    Right!

  • marycr8on
    2 months ago

    Nope, even that doesn’t work! I am a seamstress and I do alterations, out of my house. It’s up to me to decide if I want to do the work or not and when I want to do it. We don’t live on my paycheck, what I make is almost nothing. My husband’s pension pays the bills, yet I still have chronic, daily migraines… There’s plenty we can do, unfortunately, that doesn’t matter, either. Migraines are going to happen, no matter what.

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