Migraines and the Corporate South African Female

Dr Elliot Shevel.JPG

“South African migraine stats”

Headaches and migraines are far more prevalent locally than publically perceived. A staggering 9 million South Africans endure headaches on a regular basis.

While resultsremain constant across all income groups, race, and culture;this figure accounts for about 6% of men and 18% of South African women. Hormonal changes are blamed for the higher rate amongst females.

“Hormonal changes and migraines”

A recent study shows that dramatic changes in estrogen levels can be linked to migraines and seizures.

The study, conducted by the Institute of Psychiatric Research in New York states that “At times of life when estrogen levels change dramatically, such as puberty, post-partum or menopause, there are also dramatic changes in the nervous system”.

Dr. Elliot Shevel, Migraine Surgeon and Medical Director at The Headache Clinic concurs that the system of arteries and veins shown in this research link migraine pain to fluctuating hormone levels. “Estrogen works directly on the structures of the brain. The study has been able to show precisely the link between these changing estrogen levels and the central nervous system”.

“Triggers in women – chocolate, alcohol and the pill”

A recent studyby the International Headache Society was conducted on 20 migraine sufferers. Chocolate bars were given to the subjects and bars of carob were used as a placebo. The chocolate bars caused migraine in 8 of the 20 migraine subjects while the carob bars did not induce migraine in a single sufferer, suggesting chocolate to be a real and considerable trigger.

New data shows that women who suffer from migraines have a lower risk of breast cancer. The study was preformed at the Washington Hutchinson Centre. The multicenter study consisted of 4,568 breast cancer cases and 4,678 controls. One of the explanations for the inverse relationship is that migraine sufferers are less likely to use exogenous hormones such as oral contraceptives and other triggers such as alcohol. “Oral contraceptives have long been known to have carcinogenic properties.” Says Dr. Shevel.

 “Migraines linked to heavier women”

The American Headache Society’s peers reviewed medical journal ‘Headache’ has published a research paper highlighting the link between obesity and migraine. The results confirm that obese women are 47.3% more likely to suffer from headaches.

“Migraines pressures on the working women”

 Dr. Elliot Shevel says that despite their prevalence many women still overlook regular headaches as a serious health concern. “As a society, we don’t pay enough attention to headaches and migraines and the impact it has on so many lives. Far too often it is considered to be something frivolous. “

The Headache Clinic’s research locally indicates 40% of migraine sufferers feel their colleagues are cynical about the severity of their condition. Nearly 74% of them feel judged when they need to take time off work.

“Women fear losing their jobs because of a lack of understanding from colleagues and employers. They feel unable to retain or progress in a position due to their attacks. In many cases this becomes a reality,” says Dr. Shevel.


Profile of a Migraine Sufferer:


Tips for colleagues with migraine

• Eat and drink sensibly at work. Drink plenty of water, limit your intake of drinks with caffeine and eat regularly to maintain blood sugar levels throughout the day.
• Get some fresh air and exercise during breaks/ lunch if possible. If you work at a desk, get up regularly to ease stiffness and tension – even if this is to simply walk a few paces.
• Ensure your workstation is set up correctly. This will help to reduce factors like bad posture and eye strain which contribute to triggering attacks.
• Arrange a meeting with your employer to discuss the condition. How you are managing it and in particular the simple ways they can help, will be useful information. Factors like ensuring the office is well ventilated and is maintained at a suitable temperature can make all the difference.

Tips for employers

• Many migraine sufferers are light sensitive. Fit blinds to avoid bright sunlight and maintain lighting to minimize flickering. Adding anti-glare filters to computers can also really help.
• If a colleague is affected by migraine, arrange a meeting to discuss how you can support them. For example some sufferers find strong smells can trigger an attack. Simply asking colleagues to avoid strong perfume or aftershave could be a key way to prevent attacks at work
• Encourage an environment of understanding at your organization. Many migraine sufferers try to „battle on‟ at the onset of an attack for fear that others will think they are letting them down. However, in most cases this will make the attack worse, By feeling able to take action early (such resting in a quiet/darkened room) a colleague may be able to abort the attack quickly and get back to work.


To find out more about non drug treatment for headaches and migraines, call 0861 678 911 or visit

For more information or to set up an interview with Dr. Shevel, please contact Adrienne McCarthy on +27 72 646 0235.

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