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Exercise to prevent your migraines


Exercise can prevent your migraines!

Did you know that exercise can prevent migraines?  Well, it is true, and there is a recent study that proves it.  As a headache specialist, I always try to encourage my migraine patients to start a regular exercise program as a conservative way to decrease their migraine headaches, but up until now, we did not much scientific evidence to show that it actually helped.

Individuals with migraines and other headaches have been shown to be less physically active than those without headaches.  One of the reasons is that individual with migraines, that their headaches often worsen during physical activity. This is actually one of the major criteria on which migraines are diagnosed.  However, it is unclear if the lack of exercise in individuals with migraines is the cause or effect of having migraines.

The reason why exercise may decrease the frequency of migraine headaches is unclear.  Some of the things that we do know are that exercise can increase the natural endorphins (feel-good chemicals) in our brain.  Exercise can also decrease migraine triggers such as anxiety and stress.  Additionally, your sleep pattern is improved with regular exercise, which may then result in less frequent migraines.  Other risk factors for migraine headaches such as obstructive sleep apnea, hypertension, and obesity are also improved with regular exercise.

In a randomized, controlled trial of adults with migraines where patients were randomized into three groups; an exercise group, a relaxation training group, or a group that received the preventive medication topiramate (Topamax).  The exercise group exercised three times a week for 40 minutes.  The study looked at how frequent migraines occurred compared to their baseline migraine frequency. The study lasted three months.  What was found was that there were no significant differences between the groups, all decreased the frequency of migraines compared with the baseline. No adverse effects were reported in the exercise or relaxation groups.  Adverse effects were reported in 33% of the participants in the topiramate group. Restated, participants in this randomized controlled study who exercised regularly (3 times a week) experienced an improvement in the frequency of their migraine attack that was not significantly different from the participants who received drug preventive medication topiramate.1

Now I am not saying that routine exercise will prevent all migraines.  However, neither does medications.  So wouldn’t you rather try something that is good for you anyway either in addition to or instead of medications?

For more information on the causes and ways to prevent migraines see my Migraine Headache post.

As always please discuss with your physician before starting any strenuous physical activity. Also, please do not suddenly stop any of your medications without discussing with your physician first.  

Sites Referenced:

1Emma Varkey, A. C. (2011). Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: A randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalagia, 1428-1438.