Exercise: Migraine Trigger or Cure?

Does exercise trigger migraines or eliminate them? We go in-depth to find the answer.

exercise and migraine

Exercise: Migraine Trigger or Cure?

Let’s dive straight into a 2008 study that answered this question (study link). The study took twenty-six migraine sufferers who didn’t normally exercise and had them cycle for forty minutes, three times a week for twelve weeks.

Watch the video for this article above ↑ It’s fun!

The result was a significant decrease in the following:

  • Migraine frequency
  • Number of days with migraine
  • Mean headache intensity
  • Medication use

Exercise only induced one migraine attack in one patient. The study proved that with proper warm ups, cool downs, and stretching, exercise can significantly reduce migraine frequency without triggering migraines. This is monumental because one of the main reasons headache sufferers avoid exercise (including in this study) is the chance of triggering a migraine.

A 2011 study by the International Headache Society found that exercising three times per week for forty minutes reduced migraine frequency just as much as topiramate (study link). Topiramate is a leading preventative medication that has been shown to reduce migraine frequency by 42 percent—but it comes with serious side effects.

A 2003 study conducted at Dokuz Eylül University in Turkey found that forty female migraine sufferers cut migraine frequency and duration in half after completing sixty minutes of aerobic exercise, three times a week (study link).

Surpassing the success rates of medication through exercise is a significant achievement. Medications come with a number of side effects and may eventually lose their effectiveness; whereas, exercise may continue to lower migraines and increase health.

Why is exercise so successful at helping with migraines?

Migraines are associated with inflammation and exercise reduces inflammation (study link). It is as simple as that. Exercise also reduces the risk of obesity, which can have a significant impact on migraine frequency because obese individuals have 50 percent more inflammation markers (IL-6 Cytokines) in their blood (study link).

Research from John Hopkins University School of Medicine has found that obese women under the age of fifty were 86 percent more likely to have migraines (study link). So, exercise lowers inflammation, which lowers the risk of obesity, which also lowers inflammation, and this is important because inflammation is a migraine trigger.

How does exercise trigger a migraine?

Exercise can trigger a migraine because of inflammation. I bet you’re pretty confused now given what I just wrote in the previous section. Exercise reduces overall inflammation levels in the body, but it can also raise inflammation levels temporarily. There are a couple reasons for this.

  1. Your body uses inflammation to repair muscle. As a result, exercising those muscles that you don’t usually work out may increase inflammation. You can feel this inflammation in your sore muscles or if you overexert yourself—you know, that nauseous feeling you get at the top of a stairwell. Overexertion can produce all sorts of inflammation.

This is why warming up, stretching and cooling down are important parts in the gradual steps to headache health. To be clear, inflammation levels from exercise may go up temporarily, but the end result is less inflammation and fewer migraines (Study link).

  1. Electrolyte imbalances can trigger migraines so it is important to maintain hydration before you exercise. For more information on electrolytes, read my article on migraine minerals.
  2. Any health issues can become exasperated by exercise. If you have an injury, or even allergies, exercise can make those matters temporarily worse. To be blunt, running on a broken leg or when you have allergies could raise inflammation levels and trigger a migraine (study link).

Should I workout with a migraine?

Now, many migraine sufferers can’t get out of bed to work out during a migraine attack, but, on the other hand, Terrell Davis continued to play in Super Bowl XXXII with a migraine that left him blind for fifteen minutes. And he ended up setting a record for rushing touchdowns and was named MVP (news link). So, some migraine sufferers are able to exercise and others are not. In any case, you should check with a doctor first before attempting to exercise with a migraine.

Those who are able to exercise may find that the workout is painful at first and then the pain goes away once you get that “first wind.” The first wind is that euphoric feeling that some people call a “runner’s high” and is caused by the release of endorphins.

Endorphins mask pain. This is how a zebra escapes a lion after the lion has ripped open the zebra’s intestines. Endorphins will even help kill the violent exposure of foreign bacteria and viruses while masking pain (study link). In theory, this could help battle migraine triggers at the same time as it reduces pain.

What about endorphins in the long run?

No pun intended, well, maybe a little pun, but endorphins can be helpful for long-term relief of migraines.

Endorphins are part of something bigger; they’re your happy chemicals. You can read about why these happy chemicals are so important for battling migraines in The 3-Day Headache “Cure” or read Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin by Dr. Loretta Breuning (PDF version link). In short, these are chemicals in your brain that can naturally reverse stress and reduce inflammation, glutamate and migraines.

In the long run, working out can increase endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. This explains why exercise is just as effective, or even more effective, than prevention medications. Decreased levels of serotonin have been found in migraine sufferers (study link) and many prevention medications, such as anti-depressants (amitriptyline) or anti-seizure medications (topiramate), work to increase serotonin in order to keep you happy as well as lower levels of inflammation and glutamate (study link).

Exercise is better than any prevention drug because the side effects of exercise are increased health and happiness. A side effect of topiramate is drooling. You don’t want to be a drooler (not a real word). You want to feel great naturally. Remember to stretch, warm up, cool down and go at your own pace. Even going for a walk every day will have a substantial effect on your headache health and overall happiness levels.

If you can’t exercise for any reason, you can still find multiple options for dealing with your headaches and migraines at 3dayheachecure.com.


Author: Jeremy Orozco

Jeremy Orozco is a former firefighter turned migraine expert, author, and co-founder of MigraineKey.com. He's the author of Hemp for Migraine and The 3-Day Headache "Cure". You can find Jeremy here at MigraineKey.com and on Facebook. (See Jeremy's full bio.) // MigraineKey.com is dedicated to eliminating headaches and migraines. Forever. Share this post to help headache and migraine sufferers.

This is not medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Read the disclaimer.

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