Helping a Loved One With a Migraine or Headache Disorder

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Having a loved one with a chronic migraine or headache disorder can be extremely challenging. The immense desire you may feel to ease their physical and emotional pain can be all-consuming and create negative emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, fear, or helplessness.

Even though you do not have the magical power to soothe your loved one's pain, the good news is that there are things you can do to not only bring comfort to their lives but also be supportive, empathetic partners in their headache or migraine journey.

Focus on the Positive

As a loved one, you can provide moral support and encouragement through kind words, cards, or caring gestures like running an errand or bringing over dinner on a bad day. Distraction is also a great idea—telling jokes, sharing a story, or bringing over a craft can do wonders for the soul.

But you want to be careful not to have your entire relationship revolve around your loved one's pain and symptoms—for example, fatigue, dizziness, problems concentrating, or sensitivities to light, sound, and smell.

This can ultimately be harmful both for you and your loved one. Instead, focus on the positive like what your loved one can do despite their disorder, and not their limitations.

Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Treating a chronic headache or migraine disorder entails more than taking medications. It requires a holistic approach, one that incorporates medicine, lifestyle modifications, and sometimes therapy.

Support and encourage your loved one to engage in some form of exercise like walking, swimming, or yoga—you could even offer to join them as additional motivation. In addition to exercise, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and fits your loved one's individual needs (if he or she has migraine-related food triggers) is important.

How can you encourage healthy eating? You can support your loved one's decision to see a nutritionist or to take a series of healthy cooking classes. If you live with your loved one, you may partake in healthy cooking too, so you are both on the same page. 

Living with migraines or a chronic headache disorder may mean keeping up with doctor and therapy appointments, in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This can be overwhelming and time-consuming.

That being said, even if you live with your loved one or are an organized person, have them schedule their own appointments and make their own health decisions. You can certainly provide encouragement and friendly reminders, but allow your loved one to be in control of their health.

Besides providing encouragement on scheduling and following through with doctor appointments, you can also encourage your loved one to engage in other headache and migraine therapies like physical therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or alternative therapies like yoga or mindful meditation.

Watch Out for Depression

Mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, are common in people with chronic headache disorders and migraines. But the symptoms of depression can be difficult for the person experiencing them to actually recognize and articulate these distressing symptoms to others, including their doctor.

By keeping an eye on your loved one and watching out for these signs of depression, you are already being a tremendous help.

These signs to watch out for include:

  • a change in sleep pattern (for example, not sleeping well or sleeping all the time)
  • a change in appetite (for example, a loss in appetite or less commonly an increase in appetite
  • a loss of interest in activities or hobbies he or she once enjoyed
  • having difficulty concentrating (for example, not paying attention to a movie or conversation)
  • increased irritability
  • expressing feelings of shame, guilt, excess worry, or hopelessness
  • a loss of interest in sex

Of course, it is normal for everyone to feel down or blue once in awhile. But in depression, symptoms occur daily for at least two weeks. Besides looking out for these signs, follow your gut—most people are right when they sense something is wrong with their loved one.

If you do suspect your loved one is depressed, anxious, or experiencing another psychological disorder, discuss it with them, and suggest they see their neurologist or primary care physician. Maybe you could offer to attend the appointment with them or reach out to another loved one or family member to attend the appointment.

It is important to understand that mental illness unfortunately often perpetuates the discomfort and distress of living with a chronic headache or migraine disorder. Treatment usually encompasses both medication and counseling. The good news is that with proper therapy, a person often improves their headaches in addition to their mood—a double win.

Avoid Unhelpful Advice

Amidst your quest to help your loved one and do things for them, it is important to also keep in mind gestures that may not be helpful in the end.

Things not to do for your loved one include:

  • Do not encourage them to take more medication than what was prescribed by his or her doctor. While medication may ease headache pain temporarily, it can worsen the headache disorder or migraine in the long-term. It can also induce the development of a medication overuse headache—a double whammy.
  • Do not encourage significant withdrawal from social activities or family functions. Of course, you may find yourself advocating at times for your loved one, explaining to others why they cannot attend a function, and this is OK. But be cautious, and do not let your loved one isolate himself or herself. Social withdrawal is not healthy. Instead, encourage your loved one to get themselves going off to work, school or some other activity every morning. 

Keep an Eye on Other Family Members

Research shows that chronic migraines can affect the emotional health and well-being of family members. For example, in one 2015 study in Cephalalgia, researchers found that chronic migraine in a parent reduced family activities by nearly seven days a month. This can lead to negative feelings like anger or annoyance among other family members. Children too may be particularly affected.

In this case, speaking with a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who has experience working with families living with someone with a chronic illness is a good idea. 

Taking Care of Yourself

While it is easy to spend all your time helping your friend or family member with their chronic headache or migraine disorder, remember to care for your own body and mind too. In fact, your loved one will be better off having a healthy partner or friend.

So be good to yourself. Ensure you are exercising daily and eating well-balanced meals. Most importantly, know that it is OK to take a break. Whether you are a spouse, family member, colleague, or a close friend who provides a listening ear, it is sensible to take some space for a bit if you are feeling overwhelmed.

A Word From Verwell

You may be an integral part of your loved one's headache or migraine journey—a hard task, but one that can bring peace and perspective to your life if you embrace it. That being said, nurture yourself too, and do the right thing for your loved one, which sometimes means stepping back a bit.

Sources:

Adams AM, et al. (2015). The impact of chronic migraine: The Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO) Study methods and baseline results. Cephalalgia. 35(7):563-78.

Buse D, Dodick D, Manack A. Perception of the Family Burden of Chronic Migraine: Results of the CaMEO (Chronic Migraine Epidemiology & Outcomes) Study (P5.039). Neurology. 2016 Sep;56(8):1368-9.

Friedman D. Your loved one has migraines. Headache. 2016 Sep;56(8):1368-9. 

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