Is Exercise a Trigger for Migraines?

Reviewed on 3/28/2022
Is Exercise a Trigger for Migraines
Vigorous exercise can trigger migraines for some people, possibly due to changes in blood vessel caliber. Here are 8 ways to prevent exercise-induced migraines

Vigorous exercise can trigger migraines for some people, possibly due to changes in blood vessel caliber. Some studies suggest that there is a link between exercising in hot, humid temperatures and headaches, which are most likely exertion headaches, not migraines.

Although an intense workout can trigger migraines, regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches. Exercise releases endorphins that can help alleviate stress and improve sleep quality, both of which can help prevent migraine attacks.

8 ways to prevent exercise-induced migraines

  1. Stay hydrated: Dehydration can trigger headaches, so make sure you drink enough water before, during, and after exercising. Signs that you may be dehydrated are dry mouth, and lack of sweat during exercise. 
  2. Eat before your workout: Eating foods rich in protein and carbohydrates 1.5 hours before a workout can help prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping too low. Low blood sugar levels can cause migraine flare-ups. Examples of pre-workout meals include oatmeal, avocado on whole wheat toast, muesli, and protein shakes.
  3. Warm up and cool down: Warm-up for about 10-15 minutes before working out, whether stretching, jogging, or lifting light weights. After your workout is done, cool down for about 5 minutes afterwards. 
  4. Take it slow: Whether you are starting a routine or getting back on one, use a low and slow approach. Start with 5-10 minutes of low-impact exercises. Then see how your body tolerates it.
  5. Avoid humid environments: Working out in a hot, humid environment can trigger headaches and migraines. Consider working indoors in air-conditioning.
  6. Identify triggers: Keep note of factors that seem to be contributing to your migraine flare-ups. Is your headband too tight? Do particular postures trigger your pain? Is the air inside the gym stuffy? Try to avoid other triggers that may be causing headaches.
  7. Eat after your workout: Sometimes, post-workout hunger or low blood sugar can trigger a headache. Keep a protein smoothie, granola bar, or some fruit in your gym bag to snack on after exercising.
  8. Talk to your doctor: If you are on migraine treatment and are embarking on an exercise plan, talk to your doctor. Certain migraine medications used as preventive measures are known to alter the heart rate and blood pressure.

When to talk to a doctor about exercise-related migraines

If you get migraines every time you exercise, talk to your doctor. They may prescribe preventative migraine medications or order tests to rule out serious causes.

If you experience a headache due to exercise and one of the following are true, seek urgent medical help:

  • You have never had a headache during exercise before.
  • You have had an exercise headache before but your current headache feels different in intensity and location.
  • You have experienced head trauma in the past.

How to incorporate exercise into your daily routine

Regular exercise can help reduce the frequency of your migraine headaches. Here are a few tips to make exercise part of your routine:

  • Choose activities that you enjoy: Any activity that gets you up and moving can be considered a form of exercise. Pick an activity that you enjoy, for example:
  • Take advantage of videos or apps: Play exercise videos on your device to help you stay motivated. Use an app that can design exercise plans that work for you, set reminders, and track your progress. Using a pedometer or a smartwatch can tell you the number of steps you take each day so that you can try to increase your activity level.
  • Make it convenient for you: Pick a time to exercise that is most convenient for you. For example, you can work out in the morning before heading to work, or in the evening after your workday is over. Join a gym that is located near your home. Have an exercise buddy or work with a personal trainer if possible.
  • Experiment with different exercises: If certain exercises trigger your migraines, switch it up until you can find a routine that works for you.

QUESTION

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References
Image Source: iStock Images

Varkey E, Cider A, Carlsson J, Linde M. Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: a randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalalgia. 2011;31(14):1428-1438. doi:10.1177/0333102411419681.

American Migraine Foundation. Effects of Exercise on Headaches and Migraines. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/effects-of-exercise-headache-migraine/

Mayo Clinic. Exercise headaches. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/exercise-headaches/symptoms-causes/syc-20372276

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