Diane Schwartz has suffered from frequent migraine headaches for nearly three decades.
“I was nine years old when I got my first one,” the Philadelphia resident recalls. “I still remember drinking the liquid Advil because I didn’t know how to take pills yet.”
While Schwartz, 37, typically gets one or two every month, she had mostly learned to manage the intense headaches with prescription medication and lifestyle treatments, like a regular sleep schedule and healthy diet. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, though, her migraines got markedly worse.
“The stress was definitely a huge contributor, and the change in my daily routine influenced the triggers, including poor sleep and eating.”
In April, these factors came to a head while the mother of two was balancing her job as a digital operations director from home, while also homeschooling her kids, ages 6 and 7. Just one day after her company announced a round of layoffs and furloughs, Schwartz suffered such a debilitating headache that she couldn’t get out of bed. “I’m trying to manage a team, so after such a blow, it wasn’t an ideal time to have that happen.”
With more people than ever working from home—one recent survey indicates a 33 percent jump since the pandemic began—migraine sufferers seem to be feeling the pain.
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As assistant professor of clinical neurology at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia and director of the Penn Headache Program, Dr. Katherine Hamilton is always treating migraine sufferers, but says her patients are reporting their migraines have been worse since Covid began.
“There are a few different factors that could be at play, making migraines worse during a pandemic,” she tells PEOPLE. “The first trigger is probably the most common.” Stress can increase both the frequency and severity of migraines, and unsurprisingly, people are experiencing it more than ever right now. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School, more than half of Americans report feeling more stress than they did pre-pandemic.
Another factor, as Schwartz found, is the upending of a normal routine. “The migraine brain doesn't like changes,” says Hamilton. The doctor advises her patients to keep regular sleep schedules, routinely exercise, and stay well hydrated; for many people, stay-at-home orders, the shuttering of workplaces, and a lack of childcare have hijacked any semblance of “before times” routines.
Suzanne M. says her typical routine was upended in late March. The 32-year-old account manager was used to traveling frequently for work, only spending a few days each week at her Wilmington, Delaware home. When travel came to a halt, the changes in her daily routine, coupled with the stress of the pandemic and other big life changes—a move, an engagement, a sick family member—increased her migraine frequency from about two times a year to six or seven since April.
“I’m an extrovert, and before the pandemic, a stress release was to eat dinner at the bar of my favorite restaurant and talk to people, and I can’t do that right now,” she says.
Changes in routine go hand in hand with another big factor in triggering migraines: adjusting to a new work environment. Many people used to working in offices are now working from home, which can lead to increased screen time from fewer forced breaks for coffee runs, in-person meetings, and lunches. Also, Hamilton points out, our home offices are usually not ergonomically optimal. “A lot of people are reporting worsening neck tension and tension headaches, which can contribute to migraines, because they're hunched over their laptop more.”
The good news is—despite all the anxiety-inducing uncertainty in life right now—there are a few things you can do to keep migraines at bay. Read on for Hamilton’s expert advice for staying migraine-free.
Re-evaluate Your Workstation
The lumbar-supporting desk chairs and perfectly positioned mouse pads found in most office buildings are typically better suited for sitting at a screen for 8 hours than, say, six pillows awkwardly piled on a sagging couch in your living room. Hamilton suggests attempting to optimize your new work environment to be more ergonomic, and implementing neck and shoulder stretches to help reduce the increased muscle tension from more screen time and non-ideal WFH set-ups.
Control What You Can
In Covid Times, there are plenty of unknowns, but there are still a few things we can control. Hamilton recommends, as much as you can, to try to stay hydrated, maintain a regular sleep schedule and balanced diet—maybe cut back on the nightly wine and daily loaves of fresh-baked banana bread—and try to get in exercise, even if it’s a quick online video.
Focus on Managing Stress
While Hamilton notes that stress is unavoidable, she encourages her patients to find healthy ways to manage it, especially while typical stress-reducing methods like gym sessions and social gatherings are off the table right now. “Mindfulness meditation can be helpful, even if it's just a short amount every day,” says the doctor. “And I am encouraging people who maybe have never seen a therapist in the past to consider using resources to help them through this time, because I think we all could use a little extra help.”
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