Migraines Reduced by Aerobic Exercise
Multiple studies have now proven that aerobic exercise can significantly reduce the incidence and severity of migraine headaches. And a certain type of aerobic exercise works even better.
Aerobic exercise means exercise where the body goes into some oxygen debt. On a practical basis, this means we are breathing hard to basically ‘catch our breath.’ When we do this, the muscle cells begin to utilize other means of energy besides glucose. Because oxygen debt pushes the heart and blood flow to new levels, increased circulation to the brain region is expected. As our body works to tolerate the discomfort associated with hard exercise, other things happen. We’ll discuss this more in a bit.
In this article
Population study on migraines
A 2018 study from Norway universities tested migraine sufferers in a large population study that also included more than 15,000 non-sufferers. The goal was to find some lifestyle associations with migraines. The researchers found that smoking increased the incidence of migraines, by an average of 30 percent.
They also found that ‘hard physical exercise’ – meaning aerobic exercise – decreased the risk of migraines, also by nearly 30 percent.
Migraine patients tested
In another 2018 study, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Sweden’s Lund University, 52 migraine patients were clinically tested. They were divided into two groups. One group did aerobic exercise and the other group maintained their normal activities, which did not include aerobic exercise.
The researchers found that the exercise group experienced significant reduction of migraine frequency, duration, pain intensity and neck pain intensity. They also experienced reduced migraine burden.
In another study, from Germany’s University of Kiel, tested 16 migraine patients. Eight of them were subjected to a 10-week program of aerobic running for three days per week. The other group did not engage in physical training during the trial.
After the ten weeks, the exercise group had significantly fewer migraine days per month and significantly less intense migraine headaches. The exercise group also had significantly less stress levels.
A University of Gothenburg research group then studied 91 migraine patients. They were divided into three groups: One group exercised for 40 minutes per day for three days a week; another group took the migraine medication topiramate; and the third group received relaxation therapy.
After three months on the program, the groups were analyzed. The researchers found that all three groups had similar levels of migraine reduction. The researchers concluded that: “No significant difference was observed between the groups,” and that “exercise may be an option for the prophylactic treatment of migraine in patients who do not benefit from or do not want to take daily medication.”
What exercise is best for migraines?
A study from Switzerland’s University of Basel tested 48 episodic migraine sufferers. They split the patients into two groups. For 12 weeks, one group trained twice a week doing moderate continual exercise. Another group did high-intensity interval training, also referred to as HIIT. Another group served as a control.
The researchers found that the moderate continual exercise group did not have fewer migraines after the 12 weeks. But the HIIT group had significantly fewer migraines. They averaged 22 migraines a month before the training and 13 migraines a month afterwards. Note that this is after only twice a day for 12 weeks.
HIIT training basically means exercising really hard for a few minutes and then not so hard for a few minutes. This can be achieved by doing sprints, for example. If swimming, it can be done by swimming very fast for one lap and then slower on another. Perfect forms of HIIT activities include squash and racquetball, basketball, soccer, hockey and other dash-and-score games. Personally, I like to surf. Surfing is also a HIIT activity because you have to paddle really hard to catch a wave, then surf the wave, followed by less intense paddling.
How does exercise reduce migraines?
A number of medical scientists have studied this phenomenon. They have found that an increase in beta endorphin levels appears to help relax the blood vessels. This is combined with the activation of the body’s cannabinoids. These will bind to cannabinoid receptors, principally CB1 and CB2. The cannabinoid ligands produced seem to increase as the body seeks to tolerate the discomfort associated with hard exercise.
One of the key areas where cannabinoid reception impacts migraines from exercise occurs as CB receptors in the trigeminovascular nociceptive neurons are activated. This appears to seriously impact the frequency and intensity of migraines – lowering them of course.
This brings up whether cannabinoid extracts can help migraine sufferers. Non-THC CBD oil extracts (cannabidiol) have been praised by some, but clinical research needs to be done.
Pharma side effects
Some pharma drugs also aim to bind to these CB receptors. Indeed, many migraine sufferers visit a doctor and most conventional doctors prescribe a medication such as Topiramate. You should be aware that these drugs can have serious side effects. For example, Topiramate’s most prevalent adverse side effects include sudden loss of vision, pain around and behind the eyes, nausea, vomiting, urination increase, muscle pain, muscle weakness, fainting, seizures, convulsions, back pain, side pain, difficult urination, confusion, drowsiness, sweating, increased body temperatures, hot skin and others.
Another popular prescription for migraines has been botox. However, botox’ ability to relieve migraines is dubious according to some research.
What about the side effects of aerobic exercise? We can quote the 2018 Norway/Sweden study mentioned above:
“an increase in physical fitness and well-being.”
Krøll LS, Sjödahl Hammarlund C, Gard G, Jensen RH, Bendtsen L. Has aerobic exercise effect on pain perception in persons with migraine and coexisting tension-type headache and neck pain? A randomized, controlled, clinical trial. Eur J Pain. 2018 Apr 10. doi: 10.1002/ejp.1228.
Hagen K, Åsberg AN, Stovner L, Linde M, Zwart JA, Winsvold BS, Heuch I. Lifestyle factors and risk of migraine and tension-type headache. Follow-up data from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Surveys 1995-1997 and 2006-2008. Cephalalgia. 2018 Jan 1:333102418764888. doi: 10.1177/0333102418764888.\
Krøll LS, Hammarlund CS, Linde M, Gard G, Jensen RH. The effects of aerobic exercise for persons with migraine and co-existing tension-type headache and neck pain. A randomized, controlled, clinical trial. Cephalalgia. 2018 Jan 1:333102417752119. doi: 10.1177/0333102417752119.
Ahn AH. Why does increased exercise decrease migraine? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013 Dec;17(12):379. doi: 10.1007/s11916-013-0379-y.
Koseoglu E, Yetkin MF, Ugur F, Bilgen M. The role of exercise in migraine treatment. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2015 Sep;55(9):1029-36.
Totzeck A, Unverzagt S, Bak M, Augst P, Diener HC, Gaul C. Aerobic endurance training versus relaxation training in patients with migraine (ARMIG): study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials. 2012 Apr 27;13(1):46.
Varkey E, Cider A, Carlsson J, Linde M. Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: a randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalalgia. 2011 Oct;31(14):1428-38.
Darabaneanu S, Overath CH, Rubin D, Lüthje S, Sye W, Niederberger U, Gerber WD, Weisser B. Aerobic exercise as a therapy option for migraine: a pilot study. Int J Sports Med. 2011 Jun;32(6):455-60.