I'm a graphic designer and writer in Northern Ireland. Welcome to my blog.

Designer headaches

I get headaches. A lot.

I’ve tried medication, physiotherapy, acupuncture (painful on the NHS), kept a food diary, too. No joy. Earlier this week, after a 10 month wait on the NHS, I had my third appointment with a different consultant neurologist. He told me it’s just bad luck that my brain is wired in a way that leaves me more sensitive to triggers, and referred me back to my GP to get another prescription of Propanolol, taking the daily tablet at a higher dose than I tried a couple of years back. If it still doesn’t work, there are three or four alternative medicines to try (not Amitriptyline, though — tried it, no effect except bad dry-mouth).

Frederick Meijer Gardens sculpture
Frederick Meijer Gardens sculpture, photo via Migraine Chick

The neurologist recommended The Migraine Trust website. So I read some facts and figures and brushed up on understanding and managing migraines.

Although I’ve yet to find my own cure, these common sense things help.

Water. At least four or five pints a day.
Exercise. Daily, even if it’s just 30 minutes.
Breaks. At least 5 minutes away from the computer, every 45 minutes.

Another thing: 4head. On-the-shelf mild relief.

I mostly work through the headaches, otherwise I’d get nothing done. A few days each month I might need to stop everything, but I always remember the positives about what I do, and where I am, then look to others like Juan Magdaraog, a web developer fighting against Pompe disease for 20+ years.

Puts things into perspective.

Resources:
The Migraine Trust
British Association for the Study of Headache
Migraine Action
Migraine, on NHS Choices

My second book on Amazon

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34 comments about “Designer headaches”

  1. Thanks for the info David, all good tips. I wonder if migraines are more rampant among designers? I have suffered from them for years. Certainly sitting at the computer for hours and hours doesn’t help. Diet also factors into my quest to avoid migraines. Avoiding dairy, fried food, too much sugar, and alcohol all help. Good luck.

  2. I get headaches too, but I see a chiropractor and he has almost completely gotten rid of my migraines. When I do get a migraine or a really painful headache, I use acupressure to get rid of it.

    I picked up this trick when I had the worst migraine of my life. I’m fairly skeptical when it comes to alternative medicine, but I decided to try it and it was the best decision I have made with regards to my headaches. Instead of spending the day in bed sleeping it off, I was headache-free after 15 minutes of acupressure.

    I highly recommend you try it.

  3. Hi David, have you tried adjusting the refresh rate of your monitor? I read that 75 hertz produces less flicker and can reduce headaches. I also turn down the brightness of my screen until I need to check screen colours and fine details, maybe that would help?

    I hope you manage to find a solution, my girlfriend suffers from very bad headaches so I have quite a bit of empathy for such a problem.

  4. Hi David, I was totally expecting “headaches” to be meant figuratively – from the headline, but quite clearly these are literal ones. I had no idea. I have also been suffering from daily migraines for several months on end – only recently have I found some relief in visiting a good chiropractor who helped pinpoint some of the root causes and triggers in my neck and back. I was also encouraged to do more regular stretching, especially my hamstrings. Who knew it would work?! At least if / when I do get migraines now it’s the exception – not the norm. Previously I also used a very expensive wafer tablet called Maxalt which worked, but it was simply too expensive to take daily. Recently a more organic and also more affordable option is a capsule from a herb called “Fever Few” – this has definitely helped too. Although by no means as debilitating as what young Juan is going through, migraines can really be a pain. All the best David! I hope some of this helps ;-)

  5. I am not one that gets headaches that much and I put that down to drinking at least 3 cups of green tea every day. Worth a try!

    When I do get a headache I stop what I do for 5 minutes and just do something to take my mind off it.

    Good advice none the less!

  6. The causes of migraines are almost as individual as fingerprints. I do sympathize and empathize with you, having suffered from migraine for many years, and having to take some of the ‘heavier’ medications for it as well. All of the suggestions from others here do make sense, eg: refresh rates of your monitor, chiropractors, diet, and exercise. Often it is a combination of the above that help- if not completely eradicating the pain.

    My solution ended up being a gluten- and casein-free diet combined with exercise (add in balanced diet with good vitamins of course). The frustrating part of all of it is that there are so many different triggers that it can take a long time to find what is the one that is ‘hitting’ for you.

    You have not mentioned that you keep a log of what your diet and activities are, combined with notations of when you get your headaches, but I assume that you have done so (considering the list of remedial activities you have already tried). Do not give up on that log. Keep trying. There may be something yet that gives a clue about what causes your pain.

    You do not mention massage therapy. My partner practices Traditional Chinese Medicine, Massage Therapy, and is a Fitness Trainer. He has had success with many different migraine sufferers by trying a combination of the three (specific exercises, self-massage, and acupuncture).

    A lifetime of trying and failure can lead to frustration and/or resignation. But I sincerely do hope that you find the relief combination that works for you.

  7. Ach! You DID mention the food diary. My apologies for missing that, despite reading twice! :-\

  8. Hey David,

    I feel you on this one. I’ve always had crazy migraines, as often as 2-3 times a week. There are several things that have helped me reduce the frequency and intensity, to a mild one once a month or less. These are, in no specific order:

    Water, as you said. I drink nearly 2 liters a day.

    Exercise and sleep both help to curb stress. Stress and tension can manifest in headaches, and it really puts a cramp in my routine. I find running in the morning has a nice effect.

    Ergonomics at the computer helps with tension headaches as well, and making sure your pillow is appropriate for your sleeping position can solve some issues.

    I also take eye-breaks. First, I follow the “20 rule” — Every 20 minutes, I look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Then, as you said, I take a five-minute walkaway break every 45 minutes or so. Get outside and get some fresh air.

    If all else fails, I find that taking a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine kicks it, especially combined with a short nap and mild cold packs on the neck and/or face. It’s about the quickest way to get rid of a migraine for me, short of preventing it altogether. The caffeine helps in absorption, so you can take less (easier on your stomach) with the same effect.

    I wish you the best — I know how much of a pain these can be.

  9. Hey David, it looks very stupid, but try to learn to breath 2-4 – 2 at the beginning, like, you get air for 4 heart beats, you keep it for 2 heart beats, you let it go during 4 heart beats, you wait for 2 heartbeats, etc.. yea, it’s a pain in the ass, BUT when you learn to breath this way (which took me a lot of time, and it still takes me) it works. I get a lot of headaches too, can’t leave the computer as much as I want, and just to relax and start breathing let me keep working and it calms the headache a lot, plus all what you already said, exercise, good diet, good sleep, water… bla bla bla…

  10. Good tip, Eileen. All it takes is a couple of drinks at night and I’ll grind my teeth in my sleep (moreso than I might otherwise), making headaches worse when I wake. So I’ve cut down, a lot.

    I’ve not tried acupressure, Jared. I will, though. Thanks for that.

    Richard, there doesn’t seem to be an option to change the refresh rate. I checked in the “display” section of “system properties” but no joy. Searched for info, too. On OSX 10.6.8.

    I’ve set the brightness to adjust automatically, but sometimes when it comes out of sleep or starts up there’ll be an obvious flicker, and I need to bump it up or down a level to stop it.

    SteHan, there’s a local masseuse I’ve seen a few times lately, but I tend to leave still feeling tense. I’ll see if I can find a good chiropractor. Worth a shot.

    David, I’ve some in the cupboard, so I’ll try substituting it for breakfast tea.

    Sara, there was a Chinese therapist in the paper last week and I plan to pay her a visit, so thanks for bringing it up.

    Shawn, great to know you’ve reduced yours. Similar to your “20 rule” I find it’s good to close my eyes for a similar time every now and again. I’ve tried heat wraps on my neck, but cold works better.

    Vanessa, does that mean you’re in employment if you can’t leave the computer as much as you want? Thanks for the breathing advice.

    A couple of readers replied via email. Alizah recommended adding turmeric and magnesium to my diet (both have anti-inflammatory properties). The neurologist told me to substitute paracetamol for ibuprofen because of the anti-inflammatory, and because paracetamol can make things worse (more of a rebound, he said). So turmeric and magnesium. Something else to try. Christina got dry-mouth from the Amitriptyline, too. Seems to be a common side-effect.

    Thanks again, everyone. Away for a run.

  11. David:
    2 recommendations:

    Chiropractor – find one, I have not gotten any headaches since I started going to one. In fact, my chiropractor decided to become a chiropractor because she had chronic migraines and was relieved from them once she went to one.

    Eliminate wheat – read Wheatbelly by William Davis – eliminating wheat may eliminate your trigger points, fascinating book!

    Good luck! Sorry you have to deal with this annoying problem.

  12. Greetings David from just outside Houston, Texas, USA…

    I used to get a lot of headaches… An important component I had to consider was my blood pressure. I have a strong family history of high blood pressure and dreaded the possibility of having to take expensive medication for the rest of my life. Mine was always borderline high and sometimes would spike. I started taking garlic on a daily basis about a year and half ago on the advice of my mother. My blood pressure has been in the normal range since then and headaches are an extreme rarity… usually happens when I consume extremely salty food. Also, I noticed I had different types of pain that I would lump under the label “headaches.” I would have pain behind the eyes (due to staring at the computer and extremely poor, corrected eyesight), sinus pain (usually due to irritation from inhaling nature’s particles) and, of course, the good old fashion pain in the temple or forehead. Are all your headaches alike, David?

  13. Three thoughts for tuppence.

    1) Walk.

    2) I had headaches *everyday* for years. Kept a huge bottle of pills around. One day I stopped drinking diet sodas, and the headaches left that day and never came back.

    3) Stop thinking about IE6. It’s really and truly just about totally gone :)

    4) Develop more passive income :)

  14. Hi David. Yes I think in our job headaches are the norm. I have discovered apart from the obvious ones that you have mentioned, a good cure is to have a back and neck massage. Having one, twice (or more frequent) a year helps to reduce the frequency of headaches. You, like me probably sit at the desk for long hours and this causes neck and back problems. I would give it a go and hopefully it will help.

  15. Thanks, Anne, Mark. I’ve had professional massage, and although I can’t be sure, I do think it helps, but I’ve not seen a chiropractor so I’ll look into it.

    Doug, more passive income. I like that idea.

    Antonio, pretty much — behind the eyes, top of my neck. Garlic, eh? Catherine’s in for a treat. I’m glad you’ve been able to ditch the pain.

  16. David, have you had your eyesight tested? You might just need (reading) glasses?!

  17. Hi David, I’m a fellow headache sufferer too. I’ve not had much luck with doctors, I’ve pretty much been told “you’ve had headaches all your life, so you’ll continue to have headaches all your life”.

    Like you, dehydration, inactivity and staring and computer screens are obvious triggers (which is unfortunate given our occupations). But I also can get headaches when I’m out of the house doing things, drinking lots of fluids and no-where near a screen.

    You’re right though, it’s worth putting things into perspective.

  18. I developed headaches a couple of years back and found it was due to a developed Astigmatism in one eye (colours come across different alongside slight blurred vision) so had prescribed lenses – which in fact have hardly helped.

    It seems that a lot of ‘designer/computer’ based headaches are due to the light/eye strain. I found doing eye exercises by spending 5 – 10 mins a day focussing on distant things and then to something close (repeatedly, there are also a fair few articles and youtube vids) helped a fair bit, also tiger balm on the temple area – this burns a little but tends to relax muscles.

  19. I’ve lived with migraines for as long as I can remember, getting them 15-20 times a month, along with the lovely vomiting it can induce. But I’ve been taking Amitriptyline nightly for the past 5 or so years, and it’s changed my life. I only get migraines a couple of times a month now. I guess it doesn’t work for everyone, though. Good luck David, I hope the Propanolol will give you some relief!

  20. No, it doesn´t mean that, but.. in the office, sometimes if they are asking me for things in the moment and can´t rest each hour for some deadline.. i just can´t, pretty sure that happens to everyone, I don´t set a clock to rest :) so, I know that breathing well, it helps for the oxygen in my brain, but the turmeric is a good idea, was that person indian? because my Indian mates tell me always to try turmeric for everything, apparently, it has very good healing “things” or whatever, inside haha.

  21. I find that I get headaches from staring at a monitor for too long, long periods of time sensitive concentration, or dehydration. I’m sure some of us are more prone, but I think that frequent breaks away from stress, good consistent diet/meals, and plenty of water are my keys to success.

    I hope you find your remedy David. Good luck!

  22. David,
    Do you sleep well? My case was not being able to have deep sleep. I’m super sensitive to sound so even little noise (like air condition, wind, bird, clock..) stops me from going into deep sleep and I find myself waking up with terrible headache (behind the eyes and top of the neck like yours) almost every morning. Since last year, I used ear plug to block out the sounds when I sleep and this seems to gotten rid of my headache.

    I feel your pain and good luck.

  23. My inbox is backed-up after I needed a day’s downtime (bed). First serious headache in about a month.

    Mirjam, I started wearing glasses about five years back, mainly for computer work, reading, and watching TV. Regular eye tests are definitely recommended.

    Aaron, I’m the same. They’ll still happen if I’m out and about, nowhere near a computer or screen. So it’s not easy to pin.

    Jolanta, I have astigmatism in both eyes. One’s longsighted, the other short. (-1.5 and +1.5 or thereabouts). I just bought some Tiger Balm from Tesco. Thanks a lot for the tip.

    Cherie, it’s good to know someone gets benefit from standard medication — you’re the first person I know whose headaches are helped by either Amitriptyline or Propranolol. Also great to know your life has been changed for the better. Long may it continue.

    Vanessa, I’m not sure, but I know it’s widely used in Indian cooking. The good part — I love Indian food.

    Sung Lee (sorry if that’s both names), I’m a light sleeper, and tend to wake through the night. I think I’ve tried sleeping with ear plugs before (not at home, probably abroad) but couldn’t stick it because I sleep on my sides, so one ear to the pillow. Thanks, though, and I’m glad you found your cure.

    Blake, cheers bud.

  24. Hi David, I’m sorry to hear that you get headaches. I have advise – meditation. It’s long term training. Mind relaxing and mind remapping are the two key results. Hope it will help.

  25. Hi David! I never would have guessed that you were a fellow migraine sufferer. I know everyone is bombarding you with suggestions, but I can’t pass up offering some of my own advice, if you’re open.

    To reiterate what everyone is saying: CHIROPRACTOR combined with massage and acupuncture. I’ve had very good results with all three. If you’ve been working at a computer all your life, you may need multiple adjustments to get things right again. When I first started I needed several adjustments a week! I also do stretching exercises throughout the day and try to have an ergonomic workspace.

    Additionally, I haven’t seen anyone really recommend any supplements. Typically, chronic headaches are either due to poor posture or a deficiency of some sort. I take Butterbur and magnesium (both regulate blood flow to the brain). Taking these supplements daily has reduced my migraines by 50%. Feverfew has also worked for some people. CoQ10, B2, B6, and B12 are also helpful and were recommended by my neurologist.

    I know some of the natural stuff sounds a little unscientific, but I like to think of it this way: no one gets a headache because of an aspirin deficiency. I think our bodies are trying to tell us something when it hurts. Just my thoughts. Drugs are fine when needed, but it might be worth exhausting other options too! Good luck with managing your symptoms :)

  26. David… Wish I had some advice but I don’t, only sympathy. It is amazing to me how much work you are getting done in spite of those nasty headaches. ( especially since you are self employed) It must take tremendous self discipline to keep plowing ahead when your body is trying its best to be distracting!!!!!!! You have been a hero of mine for a while now and knowing what you are putting up with only raises my respect level! When I am feeling out of sorts it is so hard for me to focus on work! Hope somewhere in these commments you will find a method of relief. All the best….

  27. Do you know if your reading glasses have any anti-reflective coating to reflect glare from the computer screen?

    I used to get terrible migraines often when I worked full-time in an office, most likely from eye strain caused by fluorescent lights and glare from the computer screen. I usually wear contact lenses and I noticed that the days I wore glasses to work, my headaches were far less severe. My glasses are old so I’m not sure what kind of anti-glare coating they have, if any, but they seem to work better than contacts.

    I’ve been shopping for a new pair of glasses lately, and I found that there are lenses specially designed for reflecting glare from fluorescent lights and computer screens. I’m definitely going to try them in hopes of eliminating my headaches all together! Perhaps if your headaches are due to eye strain then it’s something worth looking into if you haven’t already. Hope that helps!

  28. You’re the fifth person in this thread to recommend a chiropractor, Sheila. It’s a sign. I’ll definitely look into those supplements, too.

    Meredith, that’ll be my addiction to design. ;) As always, thanks for your support.

    Katy, got the anti-glare coating. I’ve had glasses without, and there’s a fair difference. You can probably take your old pair to an optician just to get the lenses coated. Good luck with your switch.

    Cheers, Adam.

    Have a great weekend!

  29. All suffering is caused by our ego. This is radical expression of opinion and something people take offense too.

    Instead of hiding from the pain, put your minds eye on it and meditate on it. You will soon realise your ego is making the pain worse than it is. If you dig deeply into this and meditate with great intent you will soon find that by concentrating on the source of pain will mean it disappears altogether.

    Visit the wisdom archive and read a few of Lama Yeshe’s book. Once you understand the root of the pain you can control and ease it yourself.

    Pills, medication taken externally will only mask the issue, externally. Explore the inner world and free yourself at the source.

    Whilst a radical opinion, I urge you to explore it.

    I suffered migraines my entire life and finally turned away from western medicine to seek the greatly truths. Relying on someone else to fix your issues will not work longterm, you must learn to diagnose and understand your own issues, physical and mental in order to resolve them permanently.

    Best,
    David

  30. David

    How are you feeling these days? Any progress with finding relief from your headaches?

    Anne

  31. Thanks for asking, Anne. The past couple of months have been the best in a long time. I can’t put it down to one thing in particular, but I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, getting a few massages, and taking Pizotifen. By “best in a long time” I mean one bad headache per week, but not so bad that I can’t work. I’ve not tried taking wheat out of my diet yet, but thanks again for the suggestion. How often do you see a chiropractor?

  32. I would see her like once a week for a maybe a month or 2 to start then down to once a month.
    Glad to hear you are getting some relief, and who knows what is making that happen, just be happy it’s improving!
    Take care.

    Anne

  33. Zomig, Zomig, Zomig, It’s a migraine prescription. I suffered for years, IT works.

  34. Great tips on here. I’ve been fighting headaches for a few years, it’s been getting worse as screen resolutions get higher, things look tiny on my imac now but my optician says I’ve got perfect 20/20 vision.

    I’ve put it down to the stress of multitasking 10+ projects at a time, forward leaning posture (which is super hard to correct!), water intake, sleep, lighting in the room, reflections on the screen and no breaks.

    All of that probably sounds familiar to everyone right?

    I’ve done as much as I can to fix these elements but the best trick I found was something a 70 year old doctor told me in Malaysia. Press down on the muscle between thumb and index finger on both hands, close eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Do the same on an individual basis to the arm muscle at the top of your forearm.

    I thought this would be a load of rubbish but it seems to work, trick of the mind or real, if it works it works! :-)

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