Migraine & Quality of Life Traffic Light System

Migraine & Quality of Life Traffic Light System

My headache specialist introduced me to this color-coded system for rating migraine’s impact on day-to-day life, the simplicity and usefulness of which are no less than brilliant: Think about how much migraine affects your life each day in terms of a traffic light. Days in which you’re functioning with no impairment are green, those where you’re not as active as when you’re migraine-free but are still productive are yellow, and red days are the ones you spend wiped out by a migraine attack. You can use the system verbally or make a daily note, whether in your headache diary, journal, or with a colored dot on your calendar.

Replacing the pain scale to describe migraine’s impact

I used to struggle to quantify the impact of migraine on my day-to-day life. I tried assigning my productivity a percentage, using a scale similar to the 1-10 pain scale, and describing my impairment in terms of mild, moderate, or severe. None really captured what I was trying to describe. Using the colors — or terms of “go,” “yield,” and “stop” — associated with a traffic light is not only a cinch, but is tremendously accurate.

Tracking the severity of migraine

Perhaps the best part about this system is that it’s not just about how you feel physically, but the impact of migraine on your life. For many of us, the reduced quality of life that comes with migraine attacks is as significant as the physical symptoms are. Both the MIDAS and HIT questionnaires provide a similar assessment, but they are retroactive rather than day-to-day. Seeing the impact on a daily basis might be discouraging during a rough patch, but it can also prompt a change in treatment, help assess whether a new treatment is working, and keep tabs on your emotional state.

Each person’s traffic light system may differ

Just as pain scales are subjective, the green, yellow, red system is defined by the person who uses it. For me, green days are when I’m mentally engaged and/or physically active the majority of a day. Prior to debilitating daily migraine attacks, I would have classified anything but giving 100% in a day as yellow, but that’s not who I am these days. Maybe that will change in time, maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll revel in having at least a few green days each month.

I hope this simple, clever system is as helpful for you as it has been for me.

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

View Comments (16)
  • Paulaff
    5 years ago

    I think it’s a wonderful idea. My migraine log has been cumbersome to keep & I’ve been sketchy keeping it, but I think this color coding might get me to start again.

  • Bruno Godbout
    5 years ago

    Thank you for sharing this Kerrie. I have been looking for a good objective and easy to use system. I think this one’s a winner!

  • AmyBabee
    5 years ago

    This is nice. I usually dont keep a migraine journal since mine follows my period and I basically know how long it is supposed to last, the severity (first 2 days)and when/how it starts; do not have any other triggers. So it has been a bit easy for me to keep in synch with it. But this system is super easy , at least I can try it for the fun of it and it might help if the menstrual pattern changes or anything out of the ordinary happens. Thanks, Kerri. As usual you always come up with issues we didnt even know we need or have with solutions. 🙂

  • Still Smiling
    5 years ago

    I love this – I’ll have to give it a try. It seems so simple and you’d be able to tell at a glance how you’ve been affected by migraines on a weekly/monthly basis.

    I too am supposed to be keeping a diary, but it’s quite tedious to keep on top of it sometimes, and if I’m in the middle of a week-long migraine, then updating my diary is the last thing on my mind and then it, inevitably gets forgotten about.

    It would be so easy just to grab the right colour pen and put a squiggle on the wall calendar to indicate the severity of the migraine…

  • 100dollarheadache
    5 years ago

    This system really seems to make sense to me. that 1 to 10 pain scale never makes any sense to me under any pain management system.The traffic light system makes a lot more sense when applied to migraine. I would say i awake every, single day under the yellow caution light. there is not a day goes by when i awaken and open my eyes in anticipation of a migraine. At times i wake up with a full blow migraine but that is not frequent. i focus my eyes and check my vision and i am relieved that no headache exists today but that does not mean that i am free and clear for that day. 90 % of my migraines come in the day time. late morning or early afternoon. Bright sunny days increase those odds. I am usually under the caution light, yellow, the entire day.my green light comes in the evening, after dinner when darkness is setting in. my night migraines have been rare.Although, bright lights, headlights from oncoming cars, watching tv or computer monitors in dark rooms have brought on migraine. my red light comes at first sign of symptoms. The aura sets off a chain of events for me to stop, red, and get my meds asap. black spots, flashing, lines and dizziness follow. getting my triptan needle into my system quickly can make a difference of me being sick 6 hours or 2 to 3 days. there is not a day goes by that i do not worry about getting a migraine. i am under caution, yellow, the entire day. I i wake up to migraine, the battle is lost. I vomit and have severe pain. i usually get dehydrated, unable to hold anything down. i still administer my triptan needle but it is in vain. I take nausea medication just to stop the vomiting. I pass out and sleep for many hours, at times i have slept 12 to 14 hours after a migraine , only to awaken to the hangover. accompanied by dizziness, nausea,headaches, light and sound sensitivity. I have a lot of yellow and reds and not enough green lights if i apply it this way. makes sense to me. i am under yellow right now. 100 dollar headache

  • afinkel
    5 years ago

    Hi Kerrie,
    I love this system! I’m not quite sure just how to apply it. I have very few days with no headache. On the days I have a headache, I have functioned as best as I can for so many years that it’s almost second-nature to just carry on. But from your article, it sounds like you classify days as green even though you’re not giving 100%. So what’s the difference between green and yellow? On a red day, you’re flat out of commission? I rarely have days like that but some days are definitely ones that my activity is severely curtailed.
    Thanks very much. Angie

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Just like the pain scale, it’s an individual thing. On green days, I feel the best I ever do. That’s not 100%, but it’s awesome compared to yellow or red days. On red days, I’m completely out, but that’s just me. Maybe your red days are when your activity is severely curtailed, but aren’t completely out — or maybe you save red for the days you’re out of commission and call the in-between days orange. I do that with real traffic lights!

  • momofthree
    5 years ago

    Hi my name is Misty. ..I too have always suffered headaches since I was a child..they didnt know they were migraines back then but nevertheless I suffered..two years ago ny migraines got really bad. 20-24days a month..then in Oct 2011 I had a brain aneurysm rupture almost killed me the head pain I have from this is different than the migraines but when bad(at a7-8)they trigger migraines. .I also have auras and lose my vision when they come..I’ve been getting botoxA shots at about 300cc for almost 18mo. It helps alot but still have unrelenting pain when the aneurysm pain flares and a migraine comes..I’ve been using morphine and oxycodone to try to manage the pain..my BP was running 260/125when the pain was bad…I went to a pain pain management dr.and hes taking me off..I’ve used all the other non opiods ie:gabapentin topamax ect ect with no relief…the opiods are the only only thing that gives me a “yellow light” I had 2 strokes since the aneurysm so I cant take any tryptophans or relpax. I have three kids and a single mom…do you have any ideas..my quality of life has diminished. ..im only42 and hope to find help…Thanks Misty

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    I agree with Misty that seeing a headache specialist is the way to go (http://migraine.com/blog/looking-for-a-migraine-specialist/). There are plenty of preventive medications (http://migraine.com/?s=preventive&submit=s) that you can take despite having had strokes and an aneurysm, and there are other abortives that might help you when a migraine comes on. Best of luck — you have a lot of options!

    Kerrie

  • afinkel
    5 years ago

    Hi Misty,
    Your situation sounds really difficult. You are seeing a pain management doctor but have you seen a neurologist who specializes in migraine? I am thinking there could be some other drug that might help you more to prevent these attacks rather than having to rely on opiods for pain management. Good luck.
    Angie

  • Dori Fritzinger
    5 years ago

    Using colors to me is much more accurate compared to the 1-10 series for me black/purple is no headache – yellow/white is unbearable -there are some migraines that bring me to my knees and tears. My migraine doctor colors it being able to “Seeing Colors”

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Great suggestion. Did you come up with the colors yourself?

  • 5 years ago

    Thank you, This is AWESOME! I am going to have to give this a try. I’ve been trying to do a migraine journal, but it just never works. My pain level fluctuates throughout the day, so how can I track it constantly to average out the day? I may seem really bad for an hour or two, then drop down and I’m able to function. Then there’s the days when it’s not the head pain but the other side-effects that make it so I cannot function. Brain-fog, uncontrollable burst of emotion, Migraine hang-over, extreme fatigue, and etc… I have no pain sometimes with those symptoms, and yet they are often more likely to keep me from work than the head pain.
    This symptom makes it some much easier to account for everything – pain and side-effects.

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Great! I hope it works for you. I, too, struggle with the fluctuations within a day when trying to keep a headache diary. The same doctor who shared the traffic light system suggested that I write down my highest and lowest pain levels in a day and how long each one lasted. That’s what he has patients do for clinical trials and they’ve found it to be the most helpful information. It’s what I did when I kept a diary and it was far less frustrating than trying to track the nuances.

    And thank you for your kind words, Angelina! I’m so glad the site has helped others understand what you’re going through.

  • AngelinaB79
    5 years ago

    Thank you Sara, well put. I always find it hard to keep a journal going full time as, like you, I struggle to note the fluctuation in severity during a day as mostly it’s a constant yoyo affect with 3or so hours with symptoms and unbearable head pain then that can drop and the symptoms could still make the day impossible then other times it can be the opposite.
    Thank you Kerrie Smyres for sharing what works for you with all of us others…
    Reading the articles here have helped me change how a lot of people see my disability…
    Blessings to you all x

  • ocprgmr
    5 years ago

    I agree with Sara.

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