What can I do (or not do) for a friend with headaches?
January 26, 2015 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Sufferers of headaches - what do you like/dislike when you're in the thick of it? A friend of mine has recurring headaches of unknown cause. They are on medication so the pain is manageable, but they live alone and often have to go to work (9-5 office job) in the middle of an episode. They live far away so I can't offer to pick up groceries for them or anything like that, but I can and do IM them words of comfort. What else am I missing?
posted by fix to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This may sound like a non-answer, but: I think it would be best to ask your friend. Most people would appreciate the question alone!
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:24 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a person with migraines, a person who sometimes is blind for up to a half-hour from migraines, a person who cannot take more than a shallow breath when I have a migraine because it jostles my head too much, I am sorry to say there is nothing you can do, especially from a distance, for someone in the midst of a headache that requires prescription medication to be bearable.

At this point, my husband knows better than to do anything other than turn off the lights and leave a glass of water on the bedside for me because any movement--including a soft touch--makes the headache worse. Noise, even a gentle "can i help?" makes the pain spike. Headaches are very much a "lump" illness, not a "lily" one. You should pretty much leave someone alone while they are acutely in pain.

I would focus your concern on times when the headache is not acute--listening to whatever frustration she's having with diagnosis, medication, accommodation at work, unless your friend tells you otherwise. I agree, just expressing unalloyed real sympathy and accepting her word at face value that yes, headaches can actually be debilitating, is probably enough.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:40 AM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

As a former sufferer of frequent headaches, I would have loved a care package with herbal teas (peppermint, chamomile), candles with natural scents (some natural scents may relieve headaches, and bright lights often irritate headaches) and some relaxing instrumental music. You might also include some restorative yoga DVDs.

If you can't afford to sent them a package, maybe send them relaxing music online? Even just showing you care and sending along wishes for a quick recovery will mean a lot.
posted by bearette at 7:40 AM on January 26, 2015

When I have bad headaches, I want to be left alone. Concentration hurts, sounds hurt, bright lights hurt, movement hurts.... Just everything involved with interacting with another person hurts. I wouldn't want someone sending me a lot of IM messages, because that would require me to either go through the effort of reading and replying or feel bad for ignoring a friend's message. I wouldn't want someone to actively attempt to make me feel better, because that would require me to expend the effort of expressing gratitude, etc. When I have bad headaches, all I really want is for the people who are near to me to compassionately leave me alone in a dark place.

So.... If you were my friend, I'm afraid there wouldn't really be anything you could do at a distance for me. I'd really appreciate the thought and kindness behind your desire, but there would be nothing you could do for me during a headache.

If you want to think of what to do as a gesture of kindness in general... Well, like Too-Ticky says, that's very personal. Bearette would love herbal teas; herbal teas make me feel sick and awful when I have a headache. I'd benefit from a friend giving me as a gift one of those masks you can put in the freezer so they get really cold, but that might be something that causes a lot of pain to someone else. For another example, some people need caffeine to get over a headache, others die a thousand deaths if they take caffeine with a headache.

You'll need to ask you friend specifically what they benefit from, what could soothe or comfort them.
posted by meese at 7:45 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a person with terrible migraines, there is nothing you could do long-distance. All I want in that situation is a dark, quiet room - no well-meaning texts, no nothing. If you lived close by I'd love a ride home, and you could swap out ice packs for me, but that's it.

As crush-onastick notes, supportive affirmation of her experience when she is not actually having the headache could be helpful. Maybe, if they're stress- or tension-related headaches, a massage gift certification or something to help her relax.
posted by Stacey at 7:47 AM on January 26, 2015

Nthing ask them specifically. A care package would be lovely, but make sure it has things that would help your friend.

Personally the specific brand of headaches I get mean I need to lie completely still on a supportive pillow with my eyes closed, which is boring. Sounds don't bother me much, but moving at all or opening my eyes is just awful. So for me, audio books would be nice. For people who are sound-sensitive, audio books would be terrible.

Thank you for wanting to help...this is really one of those things that varies person to person. Ask!
posted by phunniemee at 7:51 AM on January 26, 2015

Response by poster: I've tried asking, but they didn't come up with anything:) And I do keep exchanges brief and light - it's more to let them know someone cares about them than anything else.
posted by fix at 7:57 AM on January 26, 2015

My headaches mean I need silence and darkness and absolutely no odors, even ones which are pleasant or enjoyable to me at other times. Even the sound of someone clearing their throat is enough to make me want to die. Everyone's experiences are pretty specific and personal and if your friend can't give you an example of what they'd like it is likely because they don't want to tell you "there is nothing you or anyone else can do to make this better" because it's a shitty thing that we deal with forever.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:09 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree, just expressing unalloyed real sympathy and accepting her word at face value that yes, headaches can actually be debilitating, is probably enough.

This, this, this. I have a friend who has had frequent, debilitating migraines all her life. She requires pretty strong painkillers because she has developed a resistance. She lives in constant fear that her doctors will see her as drug-seeking and dishonest because she has to ask for specific medication. She worries about her employers not believing she is actually sick and needing to take time off suddenly. It's been a constant source of stress.

Agreeing that one way to be supporting is to just listen, believe, sympathize, and now and then ask what your friend needs.
posted by mochapickle at 8:26 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you haven't been given any suggestions, then how about a light, cuddly blanket? Pretty much everyone needs to retreat from the world when they have a headache, regardless of specific symptoms, and having a soft blanket to escape to given to them by someone who cares might be a really nice thing.
posted by phunniemee at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

If they are at work, quiet moral support would be your best way to go. Nothing too intense as I imagine keeping on top of the workload is probably hard enough. Listening with sympathy when they talk about it, so many people don't take headaches as a serious problem, the fact that you are will mean a lot to them.

The herbal tea idea sound great if they are in a workplace where they can make some tea might be nice, if nothing else it will be a small act of pampering they can do for themselves at a time they feel like shit. An acquaintance of mine was prone to migraines and had a little roll a ball pen thing she rubbed on her temples with essential oils etc in when she felt a headache coming on. Similar to this. That might be nice, it might or might not help. but it would show you were thinking of them & would be easy to use in a work environment.

If they are at home, then the advice others have offered is what I'd suggest too.
posted by wwax at 9:01 AM on January 26, 2015

The thing with headaches is there's nothing you can really do to make them better while they're going on. Even in the quietest, darkest room you're still there with your head feeling like it's going to split in two. You can do nice things for her that she'll appreciate before or after the headache (maybe send a care package or something), but there's unfortunately nothing you can do to make it better while it's happening, even if you were in the same location as her. I'm sure she appreciates the thought, though.
posted by MsMolly at 9:31 AM on January 26, 2015

Email and texts are fine, but if you could just drop a short note into the mail, I'll bet that would be very well received.

Maybe all you can do it try sending some different things one at a time. Make them small packages, something you could even put in a manilla mailer: a packet of tea, essential oil, candy, etc. A fleece blanket or a neck pillow might be a nice idea. Then ask for feedback.

The mail might make it easier for her to appreciate your thoughtfulness as she can deal with it when not in the throes of a headache.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:35 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

If having cool things on their head helps with the pain*, something like this flexible ice blanket or the Chillow may be a nice care package inclusion.

* My migraines feel slightly better if I'm holding something cool on my head, but only while I'm holding said cool thing on my head. As soon as I take it away, the pain intensifies back to its former level.
posted by telophase at 10:53 AM on January 26, 2015

knowing that you care, and that you don't think they are "faking" is great! headaches are "invisible" and sometimes when i'm dying from a migraine and say i need to lay down or go home or whatever, people think i'm making shit up.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:18 PM on January 26, 2015

How about a voucher for a massage?

I get terrible headaches, and sometimes when they are not too severe I just crave a massage, especially head and neck or craniofacial release. For someone who lives alone it might be nice.
posted by Youremyworld at 3:56 PM on January 26, 2015

I have had relief from my headaches with a DoTerra oils blend called Past Tense. Comes in a rollerball thingy that you can put in your purse. It would be a nice gift if your friend likes essential oils.

You might pass on that low carb diets can be helpful for migraine sufferers. I should have a headache right now, but since I switched to eating low carb my headaches are more of a 2-3 hour thing instead of a 2-3 day thing. It is stunning to have one go away in hours instead of suffering for days. YMMV, of course. Everybody is different.
posted by griselda at 9:56 PM on January 27, 2015

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