Exercise and Migraine
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Reviewed March 2022 | Last updated: June 2022
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. However, 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:
- 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 muscles3
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 (brand name Topamax®). The trial participants were randomly assigned to one of the three groups. The exercise group engaged in activity for 40 minutes three times a week, and the relaxation group listened to a recorded program. The topiramate group took a daily dose of the medicine. At the end of the three-month period, all three groups saw reductions in the frequency of migraine attacks: the exercise group had a 0.93 reduction, the relaxation group had a 0.83 reduction, and the topiramate group had a 0.97 reduction. The researchers concluded that exercise can be an option for preventing migraine attacks, particularly in those who do not want to take medication or for whom medications don't work.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, and half of them were also randomly chosen to participate in a 6-week, twice-weekly, indoor exercise program, which consisted of 45 minutes of gymnastics and 15 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation. The exercise and relaxation program led to a significant reduction in the severity of migraine attacks, and the women in the exercise group self-reported less pain.2
Researchers have also looked at exercise as a trigger for migraine, with aims of understanding the prevalence and if there are any unique symptoms for exercise-induced migraines. One study published in 2013 found that the lifetime prevalence of exercise-triggered migraine was 38%. Of those who experienced exercise-triggered migraine, neck pain was the most common initial symptom.5
How exercise benefits people with migraine
Many researchers and doctors recommend that migraine sufferers 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 improves mood and decreases the body’s perception of pain.
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:
- Warming up before exercising - start slow 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 exercising1
Was exercise effective in relieving your migraine symptoms?
Who should not participate in exercise for migraine?
Before starting a new exercise regimen, you should check with your doctor.
Exercise may make certain diseases and conditions worse, including:
- Asthma, recent attack
- Recent concussion
- Sharp pains
- Back pain
Pregnant women should discuss safe forms of exercise with their doctor first. These are not all the possible side effects or precautions that could be considered with exercise. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with exercise for migraine.
Stop exercising immediately if you experience chest pain or any chest discomfort. See your doctor before you resume exercising.
How would you rate the side effects you experienced with exercise?
As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. These descriptions of natural remedies are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no medication or supplement without first checking with your health care provider and should let them know of any other prescriptions, OTCs, and herbals you are taking to ensure there are no interactions.