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Exercise – Physical Activity

One of criteria for diagnosing migraines is that the pain and discomfort worsens with physical activity. For people with tension headaches, the head pain is not aggravated by routine physical activity. Also, physical activity triggers migraines. Sometimes it is everyday activities that launch an attack, other times heavy activity is to blame. Terms such as “weight-lifter’s headache” or “sports-related migraine” are used to describe it because the pain and symptoms arise after physical exertion or effort. Many people who suffer from persistent migraines avoid certain physical activities hoping to prevent migraine attacks.

Types of physical activity that triggers migraine attacks

Different types of activity can cause migraines in different people.

  • Walking up and down stairs is a common complaint. Many migraine sufferers say this triggers or aggravates their migraines.
  • Head movement commonly makes migraines worse. In some people, abrupt head movements can trigger an attack.
  • Bending over or rising up can also worsen head pain. Some people describe throbbing pain, or explosions of pain.
  • Exerting a lot of energy may also trigger migraines in certain sufferers. Lifting heavy objects or working out vigorously
  • Changes in sleep schedules can also trigger migraines. This can be a problem if you get too little or even too much sleep. The best way to manage this is to stick to a regular sleep schedule, so your body is properly rested but not too much so. This means maintaining the same sleep routine on the weekends and on vacation. Jobs that require irregular shift work should probably be avoided to prevent migraine attacks. Even so, for some who suffer from migraines, sleep is the only way to stop the symptoms.
  • Coughing and sneezing are thought to increase pressure inside the head, which can lead to migraines. This increase in pressure is called the Valsalva’s maneuver, which is sometimes done deliberately by closing the mouth, pinching the nose and exhaling. It is done to equalize pressure in the ear, for example, if pressure builds while flying. However, there is the risk of applying too much pressure to the middle ear and causing damage.


There are several possible reasons for why physical activity can lead to a migraine. For heavy activity, the reasons might be:

  • Dehydration
  • Extreme exercise
  • Heat
  • Altitude, which might prompt migraines because of low oxygen
  • Low blood sugar

Exercising with a migraine

Head pain caused by exertion accounts for 75 percent of women’s sports-related head pains, while it is responsible for less than half of men’s. Running and jogging are usually the biggest culprits. One 1994 sports report breaks the migraines into two categories. Exertion pain accompanies strenuous lifting, bending or physical jarring. The pain is usually in the neck or the bottom, base of the head and lasts only a few minutes. Effort migraines may last much longer, up to several hours, and comes after aerobic activity and made worse by dehydration, heat, fatigue and extreme exercise.


Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010
Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of migraine in clinical practice; Canadian Med Assoc J Pryse-Phillips 1997