A Love Letter to Endorphins
In my recent post “You should exercise more!” I laid out several reasons why living with migraine has typically made aerobic exercise a risky venture for me. I also hypothesized that if I could overcome my fear of aerobic exercise as a trigger that the benefits might outweigh the risks. I then pledged to get sweaty for a minimum of 20 minutes, twice a week.
I’m not a betting woman. I like stability. Poker makes me squeamish; I hate the concept of the stock market; and, save for the occasional reckless rebellion, I do everything in my power to keep my life as trigger-free as possible. So entering a change room with its potential fragrance bombs and mounting the elliptical machine surrounded by televisions was a bit scary. To get there, I had to keep reminding myself (as I do when making the choice to enter any potentially triggering situation) that the worst-case scenario would be that I would leave the gym with a honkin’ migraine attack, and spend the rest of the day in bed – something that could very well happen whether I exercised or not – and that I could handle it as I have done so many times before. So I went for it, and the results have blown my expectations out of the water.
Of my six visits to the gym so far to swim or sweat it out on the machines, I can say with complete confidence that I have left the gym feeling better than when I entered every single time. During some of those visits I felt ripe for an attack with my super-powered smelling abilities, burning leg muscles, and heightened noise sensitivity, but instead of flaring into an attack, these symptoms actually retreated gradually during the workout! Like magic! Only one out of six gym visits gave way to a migraine attack later on that same day.
This is both surprising and not. While aerobic exercise has triggered immediate head pain for me in the past, my body is not the same as it was then. While I still have frequent attacks, in the interim I’ve had regular Botox treatments, found more successful acute options, and am generally not quite as susceptible as I was during my first experiment with exercise in Migraineland. Our bodies and environments are ever changing. It makes sense that we should make minor adjustments to our treatment plan over time. How glorious when an old trigger can morph into a protective factor instead!
Also, science has long supported the idea of endorphins as pain fighters. Apparently they play important role in how the brain processes pain, and can alter our experience of pain for the better.¹ Chronic pain can deplete endorphins, but exercise can release them!
Thanks to you, I’ve had my lowest pain month in over a year. I hope we can enjoy a long and healthy relationship and that you will continue to tell those pain pathways what’s what.
I am the last person who will insist that you take up regular, vigorous exercise if you are living with frequent debilitating migraine. I know from experience that this is sometimes just not possible. However, if you're like me, and you have an inkling exercise could help even though it's been a trigger in the past, I hope you can take the plunge once more and give it another shot with an arsenal of acute meds, ice packs, and comfort foods at the ready just in case :)
Has exercise helped or hindered your treatment plan?
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?