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Unexpected Trigger: Working Out

Unexpected Trigger: Working Out

Lately, I’ve noticed that I have developed a new-and-unusual-to-me migraine trigger: exercise. It has been a trying few months of being constantly sick, with what seemed like an unending list of pain, and I’ve just now gotten to a point where I have felt healthy enough to exercise again.

YAY!

Easing my way back into exercise

Or so I thought, anyway. I had been yearning to get back into an exercise routine that in the past has helped with my hypertension, asthma, and migraines. Nothing too intense, just a bit of cardio and light weight lifting. Now it feels like I have developed a migraine specific intolerance to working out.

Ugh. But working out is supposed to be good for me! 

Of all of the things that contribute to chronic pain, this one feels quite conflictual.

Pumping it up…and down

I began to realize that my head pain was being triggered by working out a few days ago, but it wasn’t until I directed all of my attention to the different exercise situations and the variations in them followed by the creeping migraine that would build to disabling by bed time, that I put the two together. At first, I attributed the migraines to to not getting enough sleep and stress (some of my known triggers) —exercise is good for me after all, right?. But they kept coming, even with active relaxing and going to bed earlier.

One day my caretaker and I did some light cardio and stretching…and again, pressure behind my eye that by bed time had become a paralyzing migraine–lights out, noise off, cold pad on. After a few days more, with rest in between, I started to realize that the pain was too frequent, too close in proximity, and too similar to simply write off exercise as the possible culprit for triggering these migraines…but I didn’t want to believe it. It really seems like working out has been acting as the catalyst to these most recent episodes and that kinda…well sucks, really. I have also been waking up with intensely tight, clenched jaw and tooth pain since re-starting my workout regiment. Oy.

Lights, smells, sweat, aches

Now in the past, I have experienced triggers while at the gym. These have included perfume smells and bright lights. Exercising inherently has with it some of the triggers that I know I am sensitive to. Gyms for instance are notoriously bright and smelly…they omit an aura of ‘awake’ and lively, and tend to have really loud music blasting too. But I come prepared. Ear plugs, sunglasses are check and check for me. I also go to the quiet, dark areas for stretching, and I am careful to take time out when at the gym to seek out quieter spots. I also try to stay as hydrated as possible, since dehydration is also a trigger for me. Even with all the precautions…I am still getting these migraines.

Something has changed

It hasn’t always been like this, though. I have struggled to work out in the past, but I also successfully introduced more activity into my life after years of not being able to. I suffer from exercise-induced anaphylaxis and take a non-drowsy antihistamine before working out every session to prevent breaking out in hives, and I also know that being too hot and sweaty has triggered migraine for me—but for months before I fell constantly ill, I was working out with ease, and it seemed to actually be helping to decrease my frequency of migraine. Now it seems I am all out of whack, and the pain is near daily. It is really frustrating because I like how it feels to exercise, especially since it is something I thought I could never do with all of my conditions.

Tending to the pain…but still in the game

Running, weightlifting, even yoga and stretching all lately trigger throbbing pain and further light and touch sensitivity for me..and honestly, it’s a huge bummer! I definitely do not want to stop working out…but I also know that this increase in migraine frequency and intensity has to be addressed, particularly as it affects other aspects of my day to day. I am brainstorming ways to alleviate some of the pain in a way that will allow me to keep moving, because there are immense benefits for me to workout outside of the migraine pain, my blood pressure and asthma for two. I want to keep working out, but I also don’t want to feel throbbing pain every single time I do. For now, I am going to bring both cold and hot pads to the gym with me, keep using my earbuds and sunglasses, make sure to keep cool and hydrated, and try relaxing directly after to see if any of that helps. It could also be that I am just getting back into it after being sick for so long and the changes of routine could be linked to the increase in frequency of migraine. It is so hard to tell with migraine. Hopefully, after settling in through, things will get better.

Is exercise a trigger for you? How do you balance trying to workout or maintain your fitness level with migraine? Let’s discuss in the comments!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • Lucy
    7 months ago

    I sympathize with you. I don’t pay the gym anymore because it was a waste of money. Every time I went, I got a migraine. What I do now is floor exercises, walking and swimming. However, I have found out that the migraine comes if I exercise for more than 20 minutes. If I stay below that time frame, I’m ok.
    Hang in there!! You’re not alone. I thought I was the only one who got migraines after exercising at the gym.
    Luz

  • juliesgross
    8 months ago

    Yes, unfortunately aerobic exercise has been one of my most common migraine triggers for many years.

  • Crash Test Dummy
    8 months ago

    I used to be as fit as a firefighter, and never had migraines. Then I got a head injury; a bad concussion that has left me with many deficiencies and a number of new issues. Bad-ass migraines. It seems I am always in some stage of a migraine event. I miss exercising. Any type of exertion will trigger an attack. Yes, even reading an article and typing a comment; I can feel it creeping… I need to lose the 60 lbs I have gained since the konk-on-the-head, and get my BP down too. I have to walk my dog whenever I am able. It’s the only thing that I will do that day. I’m going to try to get back to doing some yoga and some ballet exercises. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the additional pain. I have more than enough already. I’ll keep checking the posts for ideas. I’ll try anything!

  • frenchyme
    8 months ago

    Do NOT drink out of the water fountain or refill your water bottles at the water fountain at the gym! Huge migraine trigger! There are a ton of germs on there. Bring your own water bottles.

    Plus make sure to use hand sanitizer on equipment / hand weights before and or after you use them. Bring with you. Most of the gyms supply hand sanitizers and paper towels to clean off the equipment too.
    Some hand sanitizers smells can trigger a migraine too. Everyone is different.

    Make sure to use a towel when using the machines.

    Good luck!

  • Georgiana
    8 months ago

    I couldn’t imagine. The combination of keto and weight lifting are a powerful preventative for me, about as effective as taking an anti-epileptic.

    I read a study recently that indicated that the more active you are the more likely it is that you have less migraine attacks. And hard exercise releases endorphins (I LOVE a good, hard bout of lifting for this), and they’re natural pain killers. That just makes this all the more perplexing.

    I guess if it was me I’d try to somehow get down to the bottom of exactly what it was about the exercise that was so triggering. Maybe I’d change up my environment. If I was going to a noisy gym, the first thing I’d do would be cancel my membership and join a quieter gym or maybe try to figure out a way to work out at home. Sound, weather, and cigarettes are my big triggers.

    One thing that my former neuro, who was a headache specialist and AWESOME, suggested to me was medicating before an event where I knew I’d be triggered. For me, it was being around my step-family, who still smoke around me despite being told how sick it makes me. (Sometimes someone lights up and I can’t escape fast enough). I know that probably gets downright impractical if you’re like me and you hit it hard up about 5 days a week. But if you’re shying away from doing a particular exercise because of migraine, this may allow you to work that in. Certainly, it’s another idea to consider.

    Exercise has become such a cornerstone of my maintaining my health and a myriad of chronic conditions, including migraine. My heart goes out to all of you who have this problem. Good luck, and I hope you all find a way to solve it.

  • I Survive
    8 months ago

    I ‘ve found any time of running, lifting triggered migraines for me too. I was able to find a wonderful trainer who made adjustments and has been better than any physical therapist I’ve had. Most of the work is done lying down on my back to stablize my head neck and shoulder. I never lifed my arms above my shoulders. You’d be surprised how much exercise you can get anarobically. I can put you in touch with him if you like.

  • vspeirs
    8 months ago

    I sympathise as exercise seems to be a trigger for me too but I still persist because it is the love of my life, sad person that I am! I have gone through thinking the cause was dehydration and certainly good hydration is vital but I now think that the headaches after exercise are caused by tension in the muscles of the scalp and actually consciously relaxing my scalp and facial muscles helps quite a bit in relieving my headaches. I also believe that the scalp tension is created by neck, shoulder and back muscle tension so lifting weights is going to aggravate this as is impact exercise. I find that using the foam roller on my shoulders and back after a workout helps to ease out those tense muscles. I have just bought a full back and neck massager that I plan to use daily after my evening work out – I’ll report back on how I am getting on with this!

  • Tiddle
    8 months ago

    This is really interesting for me. I am someone who has been getting migraines triggered by exercise starting from when I was 4-5 years old (now 45). Any type of exertion that gets the blood pumping. I spent many days in the schools sick room with blinding head pain after participating in gym class. It wasn’t identified as migraine or a migraine trigger until my early 20s. It is definitely frustrating as so many doctors say, “do more exercise it will help”. Since it isn’t as common a trigger, many don’t understand. Thanks for sharing.

  • lonely11184
    8 months ago

    You have described my life, i was a sick kid from the start, lots of headaches and vomiting at school and no any type of physical activity, i was misdiagnosed for having a high blood pressure at the age of 16 thinking that headaches r caused by elevated blood pressure not the other way around, and finally my migraine was diagnosed at the age of 30, i am almost 38 now and it is hard to maintain a regular life when everyone tells u to make an extra effort and go to the guy not knowing that a simple cough or a rough sneeze cld cause a lasting migraine, even most of doctors don’t have a clue about migraines and they just ask for more physical activity.
    I don’t know which is the hardest, having the pain of migraine or being different because of it.

  • ruthmary
    8 months ago

    Hi. I live in England, am a 73 year old female and have had migraines since age 21 when expecting my first baby. However they have changed over the years And only in the past 10 years or so have I experienced post excercise migraines. It is definitely a trigger for me which is upsetting as I have always liked to stay fit. Now I am reduced to only being able to go for gentle walks for not longer than half an our tops. I have tried yoga and Pilates with only doing half the amount of reps of each excercise. That still triggered a migraine 4-6 hours later. I am gradually coming to terms with it and having gone through breast cancer am telling myself I am lucky to be here at all so just accept what I can and can’t do. My weight is going up, which I hate, but I try to eat sensibly and healthily and go for a short walk, even if only round the block (boring!) every day. Try to keep positive all you fellow sufferers. I know it’s hard but try to enjoy what you can in life and be thankful for those things.

  • TinyTiger
    8 months ago

    I am with you especially since going on Beta Blockers. I have noticed for me it is primarily the intensity of the workout more than the length or activity. I use my Apple Watch to monitor my HR, and as long as I keep it right around 100 +/-10 I am ok. I stay away from extreme things (stair climbers, rowers), and instead use very slightly inclined treadmill, a bike, and swimming.

    Lately though my migraines have come so fast and furious that I haven’t done much at all.

  • judymg
    8 months ago

    Yes, exercise is a trigger for me. I did find out, though, that in addition to the triggers KyKy discovered, if I stretched my neck, especially looking up to the ceiling, a migraine is guaranteed. I have recently learned that this is likely a pinching in the cervical spine which causes the pain to radiate through the occipital nerve to the create debilitating pain in back of my eye. Currently in the process of testing, which will lead to injections to stop the pain, I am hopeful that this will help. Hope this isn’t too technical, but I was wondering if anyone else has had success with treatment of this nature.

  • linda
    8 months ago

    Every time I train with weights I get a migraine … it creeps up in a day or two after training my shoulders or back! Ugh!

  • Nikita212
    8 months ago

    I have also noticed I tend to get migraines after long walks with my dog. I think they have been partially caused by the sunlight. On cloudier days I haven’t noticed it creeping in by the end of the walk.

    I think some triggers come and go, so after a pause, maybe you’ll find the same. I did feel a migraine coming on in a gym-type atmosphere too. The loud music and bright lights are hard to take.

  • j4vmhc
    8 months ago

    I am so sorry about this trigger as I have it too. It’s gotten better since I lessened to the intensity of my workouts. I have to be careful with Pilates laying down too long and every time I use my neck during any kind of abdominal work. I’m tempted to start wearing my night guard as it reminds me to not clench my jaw. Trying to always do my neck stretches before during and after. I think another evil migraine trigger is sleeping in
    that pisses me off especially when you need that extra rest from having one!
    I to have gotten frustrated as I have gotten older and need to keep the weight down! But I just have to move into more acceptance and realize I am not alone. I too have started on Aimovig and noticed a big difference. Just one use and things are lessened a bit even though I am in a situation of extreme weather change, flying and stress which definitely I would’ve had double the amount of migraines. I feel like a commercial, but talk to your doctor about that preventative migraine Px if you haven’t PS Dash I to had to leave a gym because of the lighting, the noise and now I tried to do Pilates and ask them to turn the lights down and asked them if I can do small movements and change it to sitting up instead of laying down on their reformer boards. Sending lots of hugs to you all !

  • Merry021
    8 months ago

    Exercise is one of my triggers. The specialist prescribed 2 Indocid (Indomethacin) prior to any planned exercise sessions. This works very well for me and I hope that it may help others.

  • DinaMay
    8 months ago

    Exercise has been a trigger for me for a couple decades. I find that it helps to break down a complex thing like exercise into component parts, then try eliminating one or more components at a time. See if that prevents the migraine. If not, then eliminate some more.

    If I were you, I would first eliminate your known triggers that are part of the gym experience – light, sound, smell. You can try exercising at home, for example, where you have a lot more control of these stimuli. If that doesn’t do it, try an easier exercise. For me, the answer was Tai Chi. I’d been so frustrated about my inability to exercise and then I saw a documentary about China which showed a group of old people in a park doing tai chi. Hey, if old people can do it China, I bet I could do it in the US! I could and I did.

    The key for me seems to have been the slow and deliberate moves that characterize Tai chi – no bouncing, no sudden moves, no straining muscles, no sweating, no hurrying allowed.

    Another possibility might be pool exercise, where the water keeps you cool, provides the resistance that builds muscle, and forces you to move more slowly.

    Keep looking, keep trying different things, and take heart in the knowledge that change is inevitable. Why not assume that the change will be for the better?

  • Marjieoc
    8 months ago

    At age 69, I still get migraines. Almost everything about them is different from when I was a child. Obviously I’m free of monthly hormonal triggers now, and I don’t have as much pain as I used to.

    However exercise still is problematic. My migraine doc told me not to exercise when I have a headache, but I have a headache to some extent almost every day. (My triggers seem to include the sun rising and setting!)

    On the other hand, I seldom have the visual auras I used to get. I have started getting double vision, tho. Other new symptoms: muscle weakness, almost constant brain fog, balance issues, short-term memory problems, and even urinary incontinence—all consistent with a neurological disease.

    Just as no two people have exactly the same migraine experiences, I think no one person has the same migraine experiences throughout her life. That’s why this is such a problematic disease. Well, one of the reasons, anyway.

    Migraines suck.

  • mbabi1970
    8 months ago

    The only exercise I am able to do is walking. That’s it. I am a chronic migraine sufferer for over 10 years. Can’t even do yoga anymore bc even simple poses like downward dog where blood is rushing to my head affect me. So I just try to walk around my neighborhood on nice days when I feel up to it. That’s all I can do and it’s my limit. My new normal. I wish I could do more but everything has become a trigger. I try to not put too much pressure on myself and do the best I can. Keep looking for what works for you.

  • dick
    8 months ago

    I too will, at times, get headaches after the gym. For me, it’s a blood pressure rise from the exercise. No coffee before, or after. Sumitriptan relieves it. I cannot have any alcoholic beverages. Bummer!

  • Sher77
    8 months ago

    Just a little addition to what I posted… this isn’t a stressful exercise program. It would be something that is easily handled, but you may be surprised to have a few sore spots the next day where you didn’t even realize you exercised that muscle. If I remember correctly, there is also an advanced program on the DVD also.

  • migrainehead1
    8 months ago

    exercise has been a trigger of mine for the last 12 years. my neurologist advised me that exercise induced migraines was quite common. he told me that some people even suffered from orgasm induced migraines, as well. tips- don’t lift your head off the ground during sit ups of any kind. don’t strain the neck or any muscles near it during weightlifting. finally, try aimovig. its’s helped me tremendously

  • Sher77
    8 months ago

    It is extremely hard to be laid up day after day with migraines. When I want to exercise, I often want to start out far above that which my body is able to handle and I immediately land back with a migraine again. Several years ago I purchased a DVD from http://www.arthritis.org. It is called “Taking Control With Exercise”. I find that it exercises every muscle group. It uses a chair, exercise resistance bands, a yoga mat, and you. It is perfect for those of us with migraines, fibromyalgia, or arthritis and can be done at home or with a group of several friends. I’d recommend it! I’m glad the subject came up because I pulled my DVD out and want to put it to use again. No need to get more out of shape than what I am!

  • Fred
    8 months ago

    In theory, getting amped up should make my pain worse, but it does not. For me exercise is about neutral when it comes to the pain….doesn’t help or make it worse. However, psychologically exercise always puts me in a better mindset. I don’t understand it, but I don’t understand anything about this damn disease. I am grateful to be able to exercise.

  • LisaMarie246
    8 months ago

    Exercise has become a major trigger for me – I can’t even mow my yard without getting one. This has also snowballed into depression and weight gain which has triggered an inherited predisposition to type 2 diabetes. Doctors will say that exercise will help with at least two of those issues for sure, but it exacerbates another all of which have me depressed.

    My migraine diagnosis is chronic daily – I hurt pretty much all the time to varying degrees.

  • mrmakalaka
    8 months ago

    Yep, I recognise all of this and first noticed that exercise was becoming a trigger about 6/7years ago. The migraines first started some hours after I’d finished doing very strenuous exercise – I was a keen cyclist – but not during the exercise. Even if I cycled all day I didn’t get the migraine but it would start 4 to 5 hours later. Gradually the migraines were triggered by less and less strenuous exercise. I had to stop cycling (which I loved) because I couldn’t cope with the resulting headaches any more. That was 4 years ago and now I even get migraines triggered by brisk walking.
    I have tried finding out more about this but I haven’t found medical professionals – even experts in headaches and migraines seem to know much about it and in fact don’t seem to take it very seriously.
    Generally speaking the advice is that exercise is absolutely vital in maintaining good health and that it is the cure to all ills. I have always loved keeping fit and exercising – it used to always make me feel good physically, mentally and emotionally. It is a great loss to me and I’d so love to be able to get back into it. So far I’ve not found anything that helps unfortunately.

  • Allyson
    8 months ago

    Exercise is also a trigger for my migraines. I was able to pinpoint the cause as being my heart rate going over a particular threshold. As long as I relax, breath deeply and keep the heart rate below that threshold during exercise, I don’t get the crusher headache. I also use a watch that keeps track of my heart rate so I know when I’m pushing it or am over the limit. I hope you are able to find a way to exercise without pain. Sometimes I’m confined to just leisurely walking, but it still is helpful to move around.

  • peppy2
    8 months ago

    I,too, have had the same exercise/exertion migraine beginning two years ago. I have had MRI/MRA and carotid sonogram etc.
    it is quite upsetting. I can’t do much and feel this is unhealthy but I’m already on beta blockers and low dose aspirin go migraine w aura. Been to neurologist at Cleveland Clinic. No one knows what to do but use pain meds. Not good every time I exercise. Used to be a daily heavy exerciser and active w my grandchildren so this is life altering! I totally understand what you are dealing with and hope to stay in touch.
    Hugs!

  • mfhcounselor
    8 months ago

    Thank you so much for sharing! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one…I get headaches from exercising too. I thought I might be having them because I’ve been basically bed bound for months with chronic migraine and am horribly out of shape. I don’t remember getting these headaches before I gained a lot of weight. I think if I elevate my heartbeat (and hence my blood pressure maybe) too much it causes the migraines. I just started antenolol myself and am hoping that it will help. Until then I figure I’m going to have to take it very, very slowly and gain some stamina and endurance. I hope you feel better.

  • JanetH
    8 months ago

    I have asthma and migraines. I had a trial period membership (1 month) at a gym a few years ago, and found out that lifting weights and doing lots of rep exercises gave me a headache. I started researching it, and yep, lifting weights can do that. I can do some yoga. There are poses now that I can’t do anymore, because they seem to exacerbate or bring on headaches. I like to walk on my breaks at work, and so far, as long as I use an inhaler beforehand, that works well (except like now, when I have a viral infection). I want to learn tai chi and qigong at some point.

  • mrmakalaka
    8 months ago

    Tai chi and qigong – yes! I’m with you on this. Used to do them and loved them but haven’t done them for the last 2 decades. I think that this type of exercise may be a good answer for those of us with this condition.

  • SolusUmbra
    8 months ago

    I have had the same experience with exercise, it got to a point when I just wanted to cry because I couldn’t seem to do anything without the migraine after. Since then between my muscle relaxes, b2 and Amino Acid supplements I am able to exercise somewhat without the migraine after. It’s just light exercise but it’s enough to make me happy. Right now I’ve gone 17 days without a migraine (would of been longer but I accidentally ran out of muscle relaxers) There is a blood test that a general doctor (at least mine did) is able to run. Ok I could go on and on about amino acids and how they are linked to migraines but no one mentions it. But then again just like anything with migraines it varies from person to person.

  • dmae
    8 months ago

    Thank you for writing about this, Kyky! I hope this doesn’t last as a trigger for you.

  • anothermigrainevictim
    8 months ago

    I’m suffering with chronic migraines since 2 years. Trigger is physical exercise. It’s very frustrating, no proper cure. Propranolol seems to prevent these type of migraines but it might take 4-6 weeks before the effects kick in.

  • Ayl88joanie
    8 months ago

    I have suffered for 3 years with this Topamax made things worse and Propanolol does not help. I cannot stand up more then 15 minutes and migraine starts.
    Head movement is also a problem for me. Sitting around the dinner table and moving my head to see whose talking will cause it, housework, not even very strenuous work. I can only handle grocery stores for about 25-30 minutes.
    I have some relief with pulsed biofeedback, acupuncture, and massage but it’s only temporary.
    Does anyone else have this problem?

  • Kate
    8 months ago

    Not a migraine trigger for me, but any exercise that increases my heart rate definitely triggers a spike in my constant headache pain (NDPH). Taking a short acting opioid prior to working out will negate it, but I find it so hard to have motivation to work out and have to “waste” one of my precious pills on exercise vs. at work, when I really need them.

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