Overcoming Exercise-Triggered Migraine Attacks: One Woman's Story
My friend Beth’s exercise-triggered migraine attacks were so severe that she would have to spend several days in bed with each one. Although she loved to play tennis, Beth stopped playing to avoid migraine attacks. She still had chronic migraine but was grateful that the days-long attacks ceased after she quit playing tennis.
Giving up exercise because of migraine
At least at first. Over time, the severe, days-long migraine attacks became Beth’s norm even though she wasn’t exercising at all. She spent a year almost bedridden. Even the exertion of a slow walk around the block began to trigger attacks as severe as a game of tennis used to.
She tried countless treatments with little success. By her mid-30s, Beth spent most of her time in bed, grieving the loss of a job that she loved and her dream of raising children.
Reducing migraine frequency and severity
Now Beth is in her mid-40s. She is the parent of a lively kindergartner, takes daily walks in her hilly neighborhood, and plays tennis three times a week. She still has constant head pain, but it’s usually so mild that she barely notices it. Her migraine attacks are so infrequent that she’s surprised when she gets one.
Reintroducing exercise without triggering migraine
What changed? Exercise. With the help of a headache specialist, Beth learned how to reintroduce exercise into her life without triggering an attack and, by getting back into shape, she significantly reduced her migraine frequency and severity.
Having migraine attacks from no exercise
When Beth saw a new headache specialist 11 years ago, she was desperate for relief that would allow her to get out of bed. After talking through a variety of possible treatments, this headache specialist told Beth that she was medically deconditioned (that’s the official term for “completely out of shape”). The specialist said that, given Beth’s symptoms and history, her migraine attacks would likely increase in severity unless she gradually reintroduced exercise into her life.
Starting small with exercise
Beth balked at first but felt like she had nothing to lose. And she was encouraged by her headache specialist’s advice to exercise by simply walking up and down her driveway. Beth didn’t see how that could be enough to get her back into shape, but she was willing to try.
Pain, no gain
Beth had always exercised hard. She lived by the no pain, no gain maxim. To get back into shape and trigger minimal migraine attacks, she changed that philosophy to pain, no gain. She literally started by walking back and forth across her driveway.
A 3-day migraine attack
The first time, she walked for five minutes and landed in bed with a three-day-long migraine attack. When that migraine attack let up, she tried four minutes of walking back and forth across the driveway. No migraine attack followed 3-day migraine so that became her practice. After a few weeks, she once again tried five minutes. This time, it didn’t trigger an attack.
Building up migraine's exercise tolerance
Over the months, Beth slowly increased the amount of time and intensity at which she walked each day. Going back and forth across her driveway was also a metaphor for how she progressed with her exercise goals. Sometimes, an increase would be just fine; other times, it would be a migraine trigger. When it was a trigger, she’d back off the time or intensity of her walk until it was no longer a trigger, then would stay at that level a while before trying again. In time, she was able to walk around the block, add in more intense exercise, and eventually return to playing tennis.
Slow going lead to success
Beth’s progress was slow going and frustrating for sure. She was often devastated by the setbacks of multiday migraine attacks. But she kept going because it felt to her like the only way to get her life back. Maybe there was a medication or another treatment that would have worked, but Beth saw exercise as her best hope. And it turned out to be exactly what she needed.
Note: I’m afraid this reads as a parable, which is not my intent. It’s a true story that I’ve fictionalized lightly to protect Beth’s identity (and didn’t use her real name). I’m not saying exercise is the answer for everyone, but sharing what worked for one person I know. I hadn’t seen Beth for several years and was astonished by how active she was able to be. The story she told was remarkable and inspiring. I hope her story gives hope to others whose love of exercise has been restricted by migraine.
How much has your migraine disease changed or evolved over time?