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Chronic Headaches

We all get them from time to time, but chronic headaches can be debilitating, and cost the economy as much as £7bn a year. So, how can employers support employees, and help them to help themselves?

Employee health and wellbeing – counting the cost of chronic headaches

Researchers at the Warwick University Medical School are investigating whether a new education and self-management programme could improve quality of life for people living with chronic headaches. The Chronic Headache Education and Self-Management Study (CHESS) has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research and is led by the university’s Professor Martin Underwood.

Professor Underwood said: “Headache disorders are a major cause of pain and disability and their main impact is in younger adults many of whom have both work and family commitments. The annual cost of headache disorders to the UK is £5-7bn.” In fact, it is estimated that people with chronic headaches have headaches (including migraine) on 15 or more days every month.

Lack of knowledge

One in 30 of the population is living with this condition. However, there is very little information available about how to support people to manage their chronic headaches, including migraine, or help them to make the best use of available treatments, the university has pointed out.

The study will see people with chronic headaches, living in the Midlands and London being invited to take part by their GP or by contacting the research team directly

Half of the participants will be randomly allocated to a two-day education and self-management programme to help them manage and cope with their headaches better.

These participants will learn more about headache disorders, medication management, sleep, exercise, diet, mood, relaxation, mindfulness and communicating their experiences to family and healthcare workers.

Following the programme, the participants will have a short one-to-one assessment with a nurse and be offered up to eight weeks of telephone support.

Those not attending the headache education and self-management programme will receive a relaxation CD and information about their headache type.

Professor Underwood added: “Self-management support programmes have an established place in the management of a range of chronic diseases and we are hoping our study will establish an effective method of treating such a common but potentially debilitating condition”.

Helping employees self-manage

While relating more to medical or healthcare self-management than the workplace, Professor Underwood’s comments are really the important point managers and employers need to be taking away from this.

This is because the key for employers is be helping employees to self-manage their condition. After all, anyone with a full-blown migraine either shouldn’t or won’t in work anyway.

There are important practical things, and practical education, that employers can put in place to help employees coping with headaches.

The charity Migraine Action, for example, offers a “Migraine Buddy” app designed to help those affected by migraine get the right support and help to take back control of their migraines.

It also argues that sufferers should be encouraged to track their migraine, using a traditional diary or the app, to see if a pattern emerges. Making a few minor changes to your diet and/or lifestyle, you can reduce the severity and/or frequency of your attacks, the charity advises.

These can include advising people to:

  • Eat regularly, avoiding sugary snacks and include slow release carbohydrate foods in your diet.
  • Drink plenty of water (two litres a day, ideally).
  • Limit your intake of drinks containing caffeine and alcohol.
  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern.
  • Avoid triggers to which you know you are sensitive.
  • Take regular exercise.
  • Get plenty of fresh air and practice deep breathing.
  • Ensure that ventilation indoors is good and try to keep rooms at a constant temperature.
  • Avoid strong perfume, bright, flashing or flickering lights, and large reflective surfaces.
  • Wear sunglasses and/or a hat in bright sunlight.
  • Ensure that computer screens are properly adjusted and fitted with anti-glare filters.
  • Take regular breaks, especially if you are working at a VDU or if your work is repetitive.
  • Take care with your posture.
  • Ensure that your working environment is as ergonomically designed as possible.
  • Learn relaxation techniques.
  • Remember headaches/migraine can be your body’s way of telling you to slow down and recharge your batteries.

Some of this advice is self-evident, but especially in an increasingly digital, screen-based working world, it can be helpful to remind or educate employees.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, says: “Headaches are part and parcel of normal life. Most of the time we all cope with them perfectly well. But chronic and frequent headaches can be a challenge to manage, both for employee and employer.

“However, there are many practical things employers can do to the working environment and, just as importantly, tools they can use to help employees learn about and manage their condition,” she adds.