Exercise and migraine have an interesting and sometimes complex relationship.
Staying physically active is certainly one of the hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle, especially for people with migraine and other disorders. But occasionally, you may have heard that, for some people living with migraine, exercise may actually trigger an attack.
What’s the real story about exercise’s benefits for people with migraine? Should you think twice about adopting or pursuing that regular active workout schedule? No! And here’s why:
For most people, exercise and a healthy lifestyle have proven to be vital steps to improving chronic conditions. And that includes relief of migraine.
Recent evidence shows that vigorous exercise alone can not only improve a person’s level of physical fitness and activity and their feeling of well-being, but also relieve the frequency, intensity, and duration of their migraines, tension-type headache and neck pain.
People with sleep problems, depression, and anxiety (all common comorbidities of migraine) also tend to show improvement when they work out. And additional studies show that, when exercise is combined with standard migraine treatments, outcomes can be even more successful.
The American Academy of Neurology, American College of Physicians, and American Headache Society all concur, recommending that patients engage in regular exercise to manage and prevent migraines.
In a much-reported study published several years ago in The Journal of Headache and Pain, 38% percent of 103 participants said they’d had at least one exercise-induced migraine. So, why might this be so?
One theory says that increased blood pressure and heart rate during high-intensity aerobic exercise may trigger migraine. Another study suggests that, when you exercise above your aerobic threshold (sprinting, for example), you produce lactic acid in the blood, stimulating higher lactate in the brain that could create a higher frequency of migraine. And of course, there’s dehydration. When you lose fluid through sweat during exercise, you may become increasingly dehydrated — especially if you delay rehydrating (for example, while playing sports)...and head pain may result.
But before you use these reports as an excuse to stop working out, remember: exercise is essential in a healthy and stress-free life and, in general, has also been linked with the power to reduce migraines. Several studies show exercise may significantly reduce the intensity of migraine pain, shorten migraine episodes, and lessen the frequency of attacks.
In a recent study, 70% of people with migraine report that stress is a trigger for them. People who get migraines have been found to be lower in endorphins — a natural opioid produced by the body — than control subjects were.
Both high-intensity exercise and long low-intensity workouts can release helpful endorphins and reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. And endorphins from exercise can not just relieve stress, but also improve sleep quality and potentially diminish the increased risk of anxiety and depression that can come from regular bouts with migraine.
Recent studies also link both total-body obesity and abdominal obesity with increased prevalence of migraine. For people who are carrying excess pounds, regular exercise can help promote weight loss and lessen the likelihood of migraine.
A 2018 study looked at different forms of exercise and their effect on migraine frequency — participants who chose to adopt high-intensity exercise reported a reduction in “days with migraine." Regular efforts to increase cardio-respiratory endurance, such as taking a brisk walk, jogging, biking or spinning, swimming, dancing, or even jumping rope, can help reduce migraine symptoms.
Studies of yoga show that it, too, can help lessen the frequency and intensity of migraine, by reducing stress and lowering blood pressure.
To avoid head pain after your workout, here are a few things to remember:
If you feel head pain regularly after working out or other exertion, consult with a medical professional who can determine if it's migraine you're dealing with.
For some people and under certain conditions, exercise can potentially trigger migraine. But there are far more pluses than minuses when you adopt exercise as a way to help combat head pain.
In general, regular exercise is affordable, delivers full-body benefits, and has little to no side effects if done prudently. And importantly for people with migraine, there’s strong evidence that physical activity, in the long term, may well reduce migraine frequency. It can help relieve stress and improve poor sleep quality — both major migraine triggers — and decrease symptoms of depression.
Talk to your doctor about your migraines and to get started on an exercise regimen that's right for you.
Everyone's experience with migraine is unique. Mable's worldwide team of leading migraine experts helps to bring you positive change through a DNA-guided treatment program. This approach can give you a clearer picture of why and how your migraines occur, based on your genetics and the latest evidence and clinical practice.
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