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Dr. Elizabeth Leroux

Dr. Elizabeth Leroux

Neurologist & Chair, Migraine Canada

For how common and disabling migraine are, it’s shocking how little we talk about the impact this condition has on individuals and society as a whole.

The effects of migraine stretch from the home to the workplace and everywhere in between. People with chronic migraine struggle in their careers, in their social lives, and in their family lives. A major study of over 13,000 migraine sufferers found participants reporting fears of financial insecurity, strained relationships with spouses and friends, and a reduced ability to parent due to their migraines. 

Many in the study specifically highlighted the way it had affected their relationships with their children. “Kids are very sensitive to the suffering of their parents, and of course the reverse is also true,” says Dr. Elizabeth Leroux, a Neurologist and Chair of Migraine Canada. “It can be heartbreaking.”

There’s no structured approach to migraine in the workplace, and employers are heavily underestimating the cost.

Dr. Elizabeth Leroux, Neurologist

Home life is inextricably intertwined with work life

Dr. Leroux also emphasizes that people with migraine are suffering unduly at home because of the pressure they feel in the workplace, where often little or no accommodation for their condition is made. “Migraine is clearly under-recognized in the workplace,” she says. “People with migraine know they’re going to be stigmatized for missing work, so they’ll often just show up, even if they’re unable to function or perform. We call this presenteeism and it’s far too common among those with migraine, but they fear that doing anything else will cost them their career.”

Disability isn’t binary

The system we have today, where disability is generally treated as an all-or-nothing affair, is ill-equipped to handle the sort of episodic disability that migraines can cause. And a standard allotment of sick days can fall far short of providing the buffer that chronic migraine requires. Some few workplaces have implemented specific strategies to become more migraine-friendly, but a patchwork plan is insufficient. “There’s no structured approach to migraine in the workplace, and employers are heavily underestimating the cost,” says Dr. Leroux. “In a study of 28,000 Canadian employees, migraine was found to be more costly in terms of days missed and lost productivity than cancer, diabetes, asthma, or arthritis.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the capability to better support and treat people with migraine both at home and in the workplace — but only through open dialogue and understanding. “We don’t want to dramatize the disease, we want to legitimize it,” says Dr. Leroux. “Like any other disease, we want people with migraine to feel comfortable acknowledging their condition and asking what they can do to improve it. If the available treatments were in wider use, many people could be regaining quality of life and productivity. For that to happen, we need to break to the wall of silence that surrounds this condition.”

Conversation bubbles

Living with Migraine: A Patient Perspective with Vanessa

Mediaplanet: What was your experience being diagnosed with chronic migraine?

Vanessa: I suffered with migraine for seven years before I was prescribed my first migraine medication. This came after years of symptoms and a misdiagnosis from my family doctor. Over time, my one to two days per month of migraine transitioned into chronic migraine. I was shocked that this could even happen. By then, I had a new family doctor who was educated on migraine and able to properly diagnose chronic migraine. Going to the ER with chronic migraine is a hard experience. I was treated, but nurses and doctors often don’t understand how I can be on day eight of a migraine.

How do migraines affect your quality of life in regard to work, family, and social impact?

Chronic migraine has been devastating to my life. I’ve changed careers and jobs to help manage my migraine. My life has fallen apart more than once over the years due to this disease. As the chronic migraine progressed, I lost my social life and hobbies, including guitar and photography. Family vacations have been cancelled and many birthday parties missed. On any given day, I may not be able to drive, grocery shop, walk, exercise, or even eat.

How did your workplace support you as you were diagnosed with chronic migraine and learning to manage your symptoms?

I’ve been fortunate with my current employer. My manager respected and believed me each time I needed to take time off. Good, clear communication between us has been key. Last year, my chronic migraine worsened unexpectedly, and I went on medical leave. It was a stressful situation but having my manager say, “Your health comes first, no matter what,” was an example of support that many other chronic migraine sufferers don’t experience. 

What advice would you give to other people living with migraine?

To have hope and to persevere. It’s a disabling disease that’s invisible, which can be isolating. Reaching out to other migraineurs for emotional support and information sharing has been essential for me. The Migraine Canada website has been tremendously helpful in understanding more about upcoming medical treatments in Canada. This gives me hope.  

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