Growing Strong Despite Migraine

Growing up I never participated in much physical activity, due to a lifelong struggle with asthma, idiopathic anaphylaxis, and migraine. Exercising was too exhausting, too painful to do, and because of previous awful experiences with working out, for many years I just avoided it.

Exercise as a migraine trigger

I would even say I feared it. I always felt overwhelmed by physical exertion and found myself unable to breathe without my rescue inhaler when I tried to move around too much. I was afraid to go to gyms due to the fear oftriggering a migraine by the loud music, lights, and smells. I even had to be rushed to the hospital on more than one occasion from the gym when I tried getting into working out in the past, due to exercise induced anaphylaxis.

Well. Something has...slightly changed over the past few months. I decided that I wanted to carve out a more defined physical health routine for myself, because I felt as though I had gotten to the point where I was letting myself be defined by my illnesses. There are very real limitations to what I can do while living with chronic pain, but I began to ask myself if I could push those limits for a good purpose. I found the answer to be...well, kind of.

Introducing a light exercise routine

Working out is honestly a huge trigger for me. It is really difficult  to exercise while fearing I might break out in hives, or fearing some smell or bright light will trigger a migraine in the middle of a workout, but I have discovered that exercise, and a fitness routine are not impossible for me, and that has been a huge step in my happiness while dealing with chronic pain. For about a year now I have had a light exercise routine where I have tested the waters of what it’s like to push my physical body while in pain.

At first, I would do light cardio in the gym on a machine. This required me to wear sunglasses, headphones of earplugs, and be very attentive to the scents coming my way in the gym. I also had to take my inhaler and an antihistamine each time before I started working out to prevent hives and make sure I could breathe. It got easier each time, and I pushed myself harder over the course of many months, taking note of how my body responded.

Lately, I have gotten to the point where I think I can call myself a runner. I have been running as a way to relieve stress, contribute to my overall health, and challenge myself. I’ve also found over a long trial process that it is an activity that I actually enjoy. Here are some of the things I found out about exercising with chronic pain over the course of a few months, and some of the changes I’ve noticed in regards to my migraines.

Nope, running didn’t cure me

I still have daily migraines, nausea, and occasional vertigo even though I have been running consistently. Being physically active is a struggle still because I find that running environments carry a lot of migraine triggers. Running outside can bring on heat-induced pain, dehydration, and all kinds of awful, triggering smells. Running in a gym sometimes includes having to noise-cancel really loud gym music, or perfumes, and bright lights. I have however taken notes of the various triggers I have come across in these environments and experimented with ways to avoid or address them.

I wear sunglasses in the gym for instance, and I take medication as a preemptive avoidance mechanism when I know I am going to be pushing myself. I also listen to my body: I don’t push past migraine pain and exhaust myself, because chances are I will just feel doubly awful when I’m done. Instead, I do a little here and there. Some days I run 3-6 miles with mild head pain, while on other days I am in too much pain to get out of bed, and I don’t run at all.

Exercising with chronic pain means for me that I have to adapt to a routine that might not be as ‘traditional’ as those followed by folks without chronic pain. I am okay with that, because I know I am still building and getting stronger each time. I do feel bummed out when I have a really good day and I just want to go at it again the next day with intensity, but I try to remember on the bad days that I still have the hope of trying again another time to look forward to. And I feel lucky that I am able to try at all.

Preparation is key

I can’t just decide to go on a run without proper planning. Exercising for me is a premeditated decision almost always. Just like with taking a trip with chronic pain, exercising with migraine takes preparation and consideration before going out. I keep water, medication, a towel for cooling, my inhaler, ear plugs, and a charged cell phone with me during my routine, and I hope for the best, but prepare for anything.

I don’t compare myself to others, and that has given me strength beyond the physical gains

One of the things I had to learn really quickly about my own body is that, it is mine. My pain is not anyone else’s, my fitness is not anyone else’s, and my progress is only my own. I may not be able to run as much or as fast as other as other people, but that doesn’t matter. When I started out getting active, I wanted to work my way up to racing. I’ve found that my progress is slower than I’d hoped because on so many days, I am just in too much pain to go out and practice, but I don’t give up. My own progress has been steady, and I don’t let migraine dictate how good I am at sticking with it, I stick with it regardless. It is difficult but I feel strong and determined.

Running sometimes alleviates my head pain

I say sometimes loosely. This one is tricky, and definitely isn’t sure-fire. It also isn’t something I try too often, because well, between the vomiting and dizziness on the way from the bed to the track, it is often just impossible---but, I have had some experiences where running has helped alleviate milder migraines a bit. I have recently experienced this in the colder weather and  I think that has something to do with it, the brisk therapy to the head pain cools me down. I also find it easier to breathe in colder weather while running and feel better overall after runs in cool weather. It isn’t a remedy, but I have felt ecstatic when my head seems clearer and the pain subsides after a good, cool run. So that’s been fun. It is ironic because well, like I said before running can also cause the pain. So much for pinning down a trigger.

Running with migraine has been a learning experience full of interesting and strange considerations, and I have grown so much in my understanding of my own body and limitations through just trying it out. I hope to continue to run more, and hope to understand more about how my body responds as I keep going at it.

Do you run or exercise with migraines? Does it help, make things worse, or both? What challenges have you faced physically while dealing with migraine or other illnesses? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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