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5 Ways to Help a Friend or Loved One Who Suffers From Migraines

4 minute read

Migraines affect one in four people in every U.S. household, according to the American Migraine Foundation. So odds are high that you have a family member, friend or coworker who struggles with migraines, whether occasional or frequent, minor or severe.

Here are five tips from migraine experts on how you can help them.

Don’t fault or downplay migraine symptoms

Telling a friend their migraine is just a bad headache will likely upset them and invalidates the pain they are experiencing, says Dr. Lauren Green, a neurologist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “When someone is suffering from a migraine, they have other associated symptoms. In addition to just the head pain, sometimes patients can experience nausea, vomiting, light or sound sensitivity,” says Green. “It is quite debilitating.”

Above all, be patient with migraine sufferers, says Dr. Lawrence Newman, director of the Headache Division in the Department of Neurology at New York University Langone Health. “What we see often, unfortunately, is the spouse or the loved one is in a huff … you have to be sympathetic because the patient who’s having the migraine does not want to be ruining the plans, nor do they want to be in excruciating pain either.”

Be supportive, but not intrusive

Try to be helpful without prying, says Newman. Also, don’t say that you know what they’re going through—unless you also suffer from migraines, of course. “If your spouse or your loved one or your friend has a migraine and you’ve never had a migraine in your life, it’s clear,” says Newman. “You can’t emphasize, you don’t know exactly what they’re going through, but you can still tell them to be strong.”

Newman finds that staying positive, reminding a loved one that they will be back on their feet in a few hours and asking how you can help are all good ways to be supportive.

Follow the plan

Instead of offering amateur medical advice, listen to what a migraine sufferer and their doctor have decided is the best course of action and help carry out that plan. For example, if your loved one’s doctor has prescribed them medication, offer to go pick it up instead of suggesting an alternative solution. “People living with [migraines] feel miserable enough” without amateur advice, says Newman.

If someone you’re close with has experienced migraines in the past, and you know they aren’t seeing a specialist already, wait until their migraine has passed and gently suggest they seek out expert advice, says Dr. Louise Klebanoff, chief of general neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. She adds that most migraine patients aren’t adequately treated because they don’t visit a neurologist who can properly address their concerns. “Most do not take prescription medication for headache treatment or prevention,” says Klebanoff. “They often take way too many over-the-counter medications.”

Help learn triggers

Migraines are often triggered by environmental stimuli, like bright lights, loud noises or certain foods. You can help a migraine sufferer by tracking the potential causes of their headaches, and helping them avoid or mitigate those triggers in the future. If you’re headed to a concert, for instance, you can remind them to bring along earplugs—or bring an extra pair.

Also, be cognizant of how your own behaviors might impact someone who suffers from migraines. “If the person has light and sound sensitivity, don’t be banging around the house and putting silverware away in the midst of a bad attack of migraine,” Newman says.

Be an advocate

Donating to causes that help fund migraine research, setting up a Facebook group for sufferers and their friends and family, or even pushing for relevant legislation are ways you can be a good advocate. If you’re able to make it to D.C. once a year, Newman suggests going to Headache on the Hill, where advocates, physicians and others meet with lawmakers to try to advance research into migraines and support for migraine sufferers.

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Write to Nadia Suleman at nadia.suleman@time.com