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Work Health and Safety Blog

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What are some of the workplace triggers that can cause migraines?

Maralyn Kastel - Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Jennifer Long Visual Ergonomics www.visualergonomics.com.au Guest post by Jennifer Long, owner of Jennifer Long Visual Ergonomics. Jennifer is an optometrist and a certified professional ergonomist. She has completed a Bachelor of Optometry and a Master of Safety Science.  By combining her academic background with practical optometry and ergonomics experience, Jennifer offers a holistic approach to solving vision problems in the workplace. She is typically asked to provide consultancy services investigating visual comfort and visual demands in a variety of work environments.

A migraine is a specific type of headache with symptoms that include severe throbbing on one side of the head, sensitivity to light and smell, nausea and vomiting (International Headache Society Classification). There is debate whether it has a vascular or neurologic origin, but it is known to be more prevalent in women and in people aged 25-55 years. There may also be a genetic component.

The majority of migraine sufferers only experience a headache, while approximately 30% may also experience an aura. Visual auras may take the form of zigzags, white dots or “lines” in the person’s vision, a narrowing of the visual field (tunnel vision or loss of vision on one side), blurred vision and “mosaic” vision. The aura occurs in both eyes (irrespective of whether the eyes are open or closed) and typically lasts for 20 to 60 minutes.

Non-visual auras include speech disturbances, pins and needles sensations and muscle weakness on one side of the body. When the aura subsides, some people proceed to experience a headache. Others experience an aura without a headache (that is, it is possible to experience a “visual migraine” without a headache).

What are some of the visual triggers for migraine?

Some of the visual factors which can induce a migraine include:

  • flickering lights (eg strobe lighting, lights not working properly and externally any dappled light through trees, particularly when driving)

  • glare— bright illumination as well as large differences in brightness (eg a spotlight against a dark background)

  • repetitive patterns (eg striped patterns and busy patterns).

It is well established that stress can exacerbate migraines. Uncorrected vision problems (ie a need to wear spectacles) may be associated with migraine but this has not been shown to be a causative factor.

Consequences for the workplace

Visual triggers within the workplace can cause anxiety for migraine sufferers as they do not know if or when the trigger will precipitate a migraine. While it might not be possible to eliminate all flicker, glare or patterns within workplaces, wherever possible their use should be minimised and their size only occupy a small area in the visual field. 

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