We live in a digital world. It seems virtually nothing can resist becoming—well, virtual. Relationships start, develop, and fall apart on social media; the democratic process relies more than ever on connecting to voters online; storefronts are all but irrelevant without a corresponding web presence; even classrooms from kindergarten to graduate school are getting replaced with virtual learning environments, ranging from pre-recorded lectures to fully immersive environments.
As with everything in American society, much of the shift to digital is driven by convenience. Why drive to the store to shop when better selection, prices, and free shipping are often available online? For that matter, why waste time commuting and sitting through credit hours when the material is already mobile-accessible?
And in an age when whole careers—from medicine and marketing to research and retail—can be successfully performed through internet-ready tools, getting career training online almost seems natural. Already, brand name universities are increasingly bringing a diverse array of their degree programs entirely online, and many working parents and professionals are taking advantage to return to school without giving up their jobs (and the comfort of their homes).
Especially for those entering the highest-demand careers of the future—notably healthcare and STEM-centric fields—this link between learning and working is natural, efficient, and beneficial.
But for those who suffer from migraines, the prospect of living life entirely through screens and monitors can seem like a death sentence. Although the science of migraines is still remarkably obscure, it is well-documented that too much time staring at backlit screens (typical of cell phones, tablets, and computers) can be a powerful trigger.
That link between modern technology and crippling, blinding, and often debilitating pain can make technological progress look an awful lot like punishment for those prone to screen-related triggers.
So how can migraine sufferers survive the shift to digital without relegating themselves to lower pay, less opportunity, and generally falling behind the fast pace of the internet age?
When modern medicine can’t prescribe the causes or any cures for a malady like migraines, it is up to the sufferers themselves to keep track of when these neurological events occur. A journal that logs when, for how long, with what symptoms (photophobia, pain, dizziness, nausea, etc.) migraines strike can help individuals find links between triggers and their migraines. In the case of surfing the internet, screens may not be the culprit in the way you might expect.
A common trigger for migraines is actually neck pain—a stiff neck or shoulder can tighten up to the point where nerves are affected, and a migraine develops. Incidentally, staring at a screen at the wrong height (like holding a smartphone or tablet in your lap) can slowly lead to neck tension and eventually headaches. Yes, the screen is still partly to blame—but so is posture, positioning, and usage habits. Addressing this will mean paying more attention to your own body when you log on, rather than avoiding screens altogether.
Eye-strain is a common complaint of computer users today, in part because staring for too long at the screens can actually impede our natural tendency to blink without thinking about it. Dry eyes and sore muscles in the face result, and can easily develop into a severe headache or even contribute to a migraine.
Again, while it is easy to blame the machines for this effect, fighting back requires focusing on the human element (reading traditional ink on paper books can cause a similar reaction, after all). Many video game enthusiasts swear by gamer glasses, which look like gently tinted eyewear with lenses that are supposed to help restore the body’s natural instinct to blink regularly.
For those who don’t want to spend the money or don’t seem to get the same effect from this, setting timers and alarms to help enforce the 20-20-20 rule; that is, for every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, spend 20 seconds looking at something 20 feet away.
It may seem counterintuitive at first to think that how you eat can alleviate the effects of prolonged computer use, but a digital diet can actually help migraine sufferers avoid trauma. While digital engagement is, for now, a mostly sedentary activity, it is alarmingly easy to become dehydrated. Since migraines can often result from an electrolyte imbalance, it is important not only to drink plenty while logging hours online, but to drink fluids with some sodium content, or else supplement water with healthful snacks that will help the body regulate itself.
On the other hand, common trigger foods like alcohol or caffeine may be innocuous on their own, but in combination with time spent staring at screens, could push users over the edge into migraine territory. Even without a strong history of coffee or aspartame leading to migraines, it may be worth laying off such items when spending significant amounts of time on the computer.
Anything in excess can become unhealthy, whether it is a food, behavior, or modern convenience like the internet. Those living with a propensity for migraines understand this all too well. Striking a balance between the speed and connectivity of digital tools and toys, with the risks of recurrent migraines, can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up on joining the technological revolution to telecommute to work, school, or even dating. Tracking your own behavior, and response to different stimuli, is a minor price to pay for pain-free, high-tech living.