Exercise and Migraines: Trigger or Cure?

Quincy AdamExercise, Migraine Exercise, Migraine Lifestyle

Group of women during yoga class
If you suffer from migraines, you’ve likely asked what the connection is between exercise and migraines. After all, you want to avoid those pounding headaches. But physical activity is part of the package if you want to stay fit.

Researchers have asked the same question, but answers have been somewhat elusive. So the debate continues as to whether working out triggers or perhaps even alleviates migraines. Let’s explore this a little further.

 Exercise as a Migraine Trigger

While the medical community doesn’t claim to know why exercise sometimes appears to trigger migraines, there are a couple of theories:

Brain Cell Stimulation

Since migraines result from an overstimulation of the nerve synapses, one theory is that brain cells become overstimulated during exercise, leading to a migraine. When brain cells are excited, the trigeminal nerve releases chemicals that cause blood vessels in the brain to swell up and cause pain. While these physical reactions do not immediately result in a headache, one may follow within 20 minutes to an hour.

Related Triggers

Because there are so many factors that trigger migraines, it can sometimes be hard to determine what set off your latest migraine attack.

Perhaps you go for a run around the park in August. The mercury and humidity are high. Your body’s response is to sweat, helping you to cope with the heat, but causing dehydration. If you end up with a migraine afterwards, it’s difficult to pinpoint the culprit. It could be poor hydration that triggered your pounding headache. Perhaps if you had had a little more water to drink before or during your run, you would not have been punished with throbbing head pain.

And that’s not the only area for confusion. You might jog an area where large trees form a canopy over the path with the sun flickering through gaps in the branches. If flashes of light sometimes trigger your migraines, this could be enough to set one off.

How to Prevent Exercise from Triggering a Migraine

Given that there is no single known cause for exercise related migraines, there is also no silver bullet for prevention. So when you exercise, do so intelligently.

  • Warm up first. Walk before you run.
  • Cool down afterwards.
  • Drink before, during and after your workout to allay problems of dehydration.
  • Be aware of your triggers. If, for example, you are sensitive to flickering light, avoid it or wear sunglasses.
  • Another option is to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) before lifting those heavy weights or cycling 25 miles. Of course, discuss this with your doctor first.

Exercise for Migraine Prevention

Given the reservations about exercise and migraines, it may seem odd that some medical professionals suggest regular workouts.

Several studies, however, have discovered that migraine sufferers who exercised regularly suffered fewer, briefer and less acute migraines than their less active counterparts.1

As with most mysteries surrounding migraines, there are several theories about why exercise might alleviate symptoms. First, physical activity releases your body’s own painkillers—the endorphins. Also, it’s known to reduce stress, which can be a migraine trigger. Finally, if you are tired at night after a healthy workout, you are more likely to get a good night’s sleep. And, once again, healthy sleeping patterns can help ward off migraines.

It’s possible that starting a carefully planned fitness program under your doctor’s guidance could allow you to reduce your medication intake, especially for those you take daily to prevent migraines. 

Should You Exercise or Not?

From what the medical community knows, you probably should not use your migraine issue as an excuse for not exercising. Keep a journal of the conditions under which your migraines occur to help isolate your triggers. Then, discuss them with your doctor and come up with a plan that will enable you to stay fit while not inviting additional migraine pain.

1“Exercise and Migraine.” http://www.migrainetrust.org/factsheet-exercise-and-migraine-10714. Accessed November 21, 2015.