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Migraines & headaches health centre

Avoid exercise-related migraines

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Fitness can fall by the wayside if you experience migraines. There's always a nagging fear that exercise may trigger a migraine, which is enough to stop you from heading to the gym or taking up a sport.

That's a real pity as exercise has so many positive benefits for health and it could even help people with migraines.

A number of research studies suggest that moderate regular exercise can be an effective way of reducing the frequency and severity of attacks in some people.

In one study, researchers from the University of Gothenburg demonstrated that exercise can be "as good as drugs" at preventing migraines.

The 2011 three month study involved 91 migraine patients. A third exercised for 40 minutes three times a week, a third did relaxation exercises and a third were given an anti-convulsive medication used to treat migraines.

The number of migraines fell in all three groups leading researchers to conclude that exercise can act as an alternative to relaxation and medication when it comes to preventing migraines.

If you believe that exercise does trigger your migraines, think about some of the other factors that surround your exercise regime which could be responsible instead.


Are you drinking enough water? When you exercise you need to take on more water as you are losing it through sweating. Mild dehydration can have an impact on people who have migraines. So fill up your water bottle and take sips throughout your exercise session to see if it makes a difference.

Build up gradually

You should ease yourself into any new exercise programme, starting off slowly and building up gradually over a course of weeks and months.

Short, frequent sessions are better than long infrequent sessions.

The Migraine Trust research charity suggests that at the start of a new exercise regime avoid activities that are too strenuous or competitive until you are fitter.

It recommends trying to aim for at least three 30 minute sessions of moderate intensity activity a week. After 6 weeks see if there's been any beneficial effect.

Also headaches from over-exertion can happen in strength-training, so use light weights when you first start and build up slowly.

Muscular tensions

Always warm up before exercise and stretch out afterwards to prevent muscle tension which may then act as a trigger.

Make sure the exercises themselves aren't creating muscle tension. Certain exercises, especially with free weights, if they are done incorrectly can put too much tension on your neck, back and shoulders, which can in turn be a trigger.

Forty-three year old Eva has experienced migraines since she was a teenager. She exercises regularly but knows how to listen to her body when it comes to avoiding migraines.

"It's true dehydration and over-exercising can both push me over the edge when it comes to migraines," says Eva. "I have to be careful not to overwork my shoulders, as a tight neck and shoulders are a real trigger point for me. A hot walk with a heavy rucksack would be bad news! If I have over-exercised, a timely painkiller and a sweet drink can bring me back from the brink."

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