Exercise and Migraine

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023 | Last updated: May 2023

Regular exercise provides many health benefits, and some research has shown that those benefits extend to migraine. Exercising regularly can reduce the intensity and frequency of migraine attacks. But some people with migraine also report that exercise or engaging in sports can be a trigger for an attack. This may be due to an increase in blood pressure during exercise. If exercise is a trigger, there are techniques to continue to stay active and reduce the risk of migraine.1,2

Regularly engaging in exercise has multiple health benefits, including:3

  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Lowering blood sugar
  • Controlling weight
  • Reduce risk of heart disease
  • Reduce risk of diabetes
  • Reduce risk of some cancers
  • Improve mood
  • Strengthen bones and muscles

Research on exercise and migraine

Several studies have found that engaging in exercise has benefits for people with migraine. One study published in 2011 compared exercise to relaxation and topiramate (Topamax®). The trial participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups:4

  • The exercise group engaged in activity for 40 minutes 3 times a week
  • The relaxation group listened to a recorded program
  • The topiramate group took a daily dose of the medicine

After 3 months, all 3 groups saw reductions in the frequency of migraine attacks:4

  • The exercise group had a 0.93 reduction,
  • The relaxation group had a 0.83 reduction
  • The topiramate group had a 0.97 reduction

The researchers concluded that exercise can be an option for preventing migraine attacks, especially in those who do not want to take medicine or those who do not see results from migraine medicines.4

Another study looked at the benefits of a combination of exercise and relaxation in people with migraine. The pilot study was published in 2008. The women participants all received standard medical care. Half of them were also randomly chosen to participate in a 6-week, twice-weekly indoor exercise program. It included 45 minutes of gymnastics and 15 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation. The exercise and relaxation program led to a large reduction in the severity of migraine attacks. The women in the exercise group also self-reported less pain.2

Researchers have also looked at exercise as a trigger for migraine. One study published in 2013 found that the lifetime prevalence of exercise-triggered migraine was 38 percent. Of those who experienced exercise-triggered migraine, neck pain was the most common initial symptom. Neck pain is often a warning sign or prodromal symptom of migraine.5

How exercise benefits people with migraine

Many researchers and doctors recommend that people with migraine keep a regular schedule, including exercising regularly. Exercise can reduce stress, help with relaxation, and help balance many chemicals and functions within the body. Exercise also causes the brain to release endorphins, which act as the body’s natural painkillers. Endorphins and exercise improve mood and decrease the body’s perception of pain.1

How to minimize exercise-triggered migraine

According to the American Migraine Foundation, there are several ways to reduce the chance of exercise triggering a migraine attack, including:1

  • Warm up before exercising – start slowly with stretching, easy walking, and gentle movements
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after exercising
  • Eat healthy food to fuel your body about 1.5 hours before exercising

Who should not participate in exercise for migraine?

Exercise may make certain diseases and conditions worse, including:6

  • Cold
  • Flu
  • Fever
  • Recent asthma flare-up
  • Recent concussion
  • Sharp pains

People who are pregnant should discuss safe forms of exercise with their doctor first. Stop exercising immediately if you experience chest pain or any chest discomfort. See your doctor before you resume exercising.

As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your migraine specialist. Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise. Also tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you are taking. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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