Shift work and headache: what can help?

It’s not news that shift work comes with health risks. Not only if you work nights. Rotating shifts with changing schedules are harmful too. A recent large Danish study in more than 5000 medical and non-medical hospital employees investigated the effects. Headache was one of the most common health issues reported by participants in this study. As in many studies before, severity differed between male and female subjects. Women doing shift work were more likely to get migraine, while men mostly got other types of headache.

What are the reasons?

Scientists are still largely in the dark about how shift work affects health and well-being. Some believe that people belong to different “chronotypes” with fundamental differences in sleep patterns and habits. These differences make people more or less susceptible to health conditions that are more common among shift workers. Headache is not the only one. Other conditions associated with shift work include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, eating disorders and some forms of cancer.

Disrupting your natural-born schedule can be dangerous

Humans are naturally inclined to follow a regular sequence of events in a 24-hour period. This is because of our “body clock”, or circadian rhythm. Circadian comes from the Latin circa, meaning "around", and dies, meaning "day”. Many biological processes are governed by our body clock, including certain brain functions, blood pressure and body temperature. Our sleep-wake cycle is part of this finely tuned system.

Working in shifts breaks this natural rhythm. This may affect our physical and mental well-being, as research shows. These studies also show that shift work is bad for the immune system, whose job is to protect us from disease. This might explain why many people who work shifts become more prone to illness.

Common in nurses

Despite all these harmful effects, shift work is common in many professions. It may even be the norm in some workplaces because the work cannot be organized in any other way. Nurses often have to work shifts, for example, in addition to all the other stresses of the job. This might explain why up to two-thirds of nursing staff report frequent headaches and migraine attacks, as shown in studies. Female nurses have headaches twice as often as their male colleagues. For many, the problem becomes chronic. No wonder the number of headache-related days of absence is significantly higher in nursing than any other occupation.

The big issue: sleep

Irregular sleep is the main issue for shift workers, but some effort is being made to relieve that problem. A study in U.S. hospitals indicated that half-hour naps during night shift had positive effects among nursing staff. Nurses said they felt much more alert at work and after work as a result of these regular naps. Well-being during shifts also improved in workers who used daylight lamps before their shift. This is the same approach as using light therapy to treat seasonal affective disorder caused by a lack of sunlight in winter.

Targeted prevention helps

Headache prevention strategies can help improve quality of life for shift workers in particular. The most important advice is to take sufficient breaks and use them to get some exercise in the fresh air if at all possible. Just 10 to 15 minutes of this "active breathing" makes a real difference.

There are lots of lifestyle hacks to help prevent headache and migraine attacks. Advice number one is to stay hydrated. Remember to eat and drink regularly. Aim for at least two liters a day. Never skip meals. Fruit makes a great snack at any time of day.

Try Jacobson's Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) too. PMR is a well-established relaxation technique. By tensing and relaxing muscle groups in sequence, you get rid of the tension that builds up throughout your (working) day. This helps to relax your body and mind.

It really works: the '' App

Keeping track of all the recommendations might seem hard at first glance. But help is at hand: the "" app has all you need to know about headache prevention. Use it to stay on top of things and schedule your day the best possible way. Handy tracking and reminder features customized for you will help you improve your habits and keep your headache under control. The app includes an 8-minute relaxation exercise that you can use anytime to relieve stress and tension before it’s too late – and say NO to headache.

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