Exercise and Migraine: 5 top tips for staying active

Sure, everyone keeps telling us how important exercise is.  It can be a great headache and migraine fighter – but it’s not that simple.

Warm up - keeping active with migraine

Many people with chronic headache or migraine think of exercise as the enemy.  In many people, exercise can actually bring on the headache they were trying to avoid.  Instead of imagining health and vitality, we think about throbbing temples and inflammation who knows where.

There’s no easy solution, but there are some ways to minimize the problem.  The truth is, you’re almost certainly going to be better off if you can get some exercise into your routine (not convinced exercise will help you?  Read about the benefits of exercise for headache here).  Here are my top 5 tips to help you stay active in spite of the migraine monster looking over your shoulder:

  • Watch out for sudden changes:  Headaches and migraine attacks thrive on sudden changes.  This is a great rule of thumb to keep in mind.  For example, don’t jump into a new, strenuous program – start slow.  Make sure you warm up and cool down before and after exercise.  And when choosing something to do, don’t pick something that involves long periods of stopping – do something with steady activity (even if it’s only short).
  • Sugar:  The energy your brain uses comes mostly from blood sugar.  Sudden rises and drops can cause problems.  Some people find it helpful to eat easily digestible foods one hour or more before exercise (ie fruit, muffin).  Some people also use glucose tablets before exercising, and find that they get fewer headaches.  (Read more about athletes and sugar before exercise here)
  • Water:  The other important factor is hydration – be sure to drink plenty of water.  Many people have found that simply drinking more water fights their headaches quite a bit.  It’s an old tip, but it’s a good one!
  • Exercise as a way of life:  For someone with chronic headaches, this may be the most important tip of all.  Many of us struggle with an exercise "program", or "going to the gym".  It’s hard to be consistent when you many days you really can hardly get out of bed because of the pain.  Instead, simply be more active on a regular basis.  Learn to squat properly to get something out of the cupboard.  Take the stairs when you can.  Learn how to exercise your arms while sitting in the office chair.  (An amazing source for tips is the book The Posture Prescription by Dr Arthur White and Kate Kelly)  This is one tip that could truly transform your life.
  • Watch the pain:  I know, no pain no gain, right?  Well, when it comes to headache, that advice could be dangerous.  If you get a headache when you exercise, it could be a sign of something serious.  Listen to your pain.  If it’s something new, see a doctor right away.  Don’t keep exercising if you’re getting a worsening headache.  Stop and try something less strenuous, or do things in smaller chunks.

What about medication?  Well, our goal here really is to take less, not more.  But there are times when it may be worth it to take some medication if it means you can exercise more.  If you have chronic headache or migraine, it’s worth it to look at preventative medications.  Your doctor may suggest you take a painkiller before you exercise.  Common suggestions are Propranolol, Ergotamine tartrate, Indocin, or common anti-inflammatories (such as Advil).  But try the above suggestions before you start popping more pills.

Want to read more?  Click one of the links above, or read more about after exercise headaches, how to minimize the problem, and this post on Pilates and migraine.

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3 comments… add one
  • rob May 9, 2008

    Was very helpful and informative. My doctor has recommended swimming after a migraine attack or a relaxing walk. Has also encouraged more exercise in hopes of helping to alleviate the severity and length of the attacks. Most of the information in your article is along the lines of what my optomitrist recommended. When reading or on the computer, she suggests some of the same exercises. Looking away, stretch arms, neck and legs…blink. It has helped reduce my frequency and severity of headaches…thanks for reinforcing their suggestions/recommendations.

  • Bobblehead May 10, 2008

    Great post and great advice. Your post will be in the May Migraine Blog Carnival on Atomic City.

    Many thanks.

  • James May 13, 2008

    Great tips, Rob – thanks!

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