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Can Exercise Help with Migraine Headaches?

Migraine headaches are a common painful condition that affects many people. They have been described as one of the worst pains anyone can suffer. People affected by migraines have found that there can be many different forms of triggers that lead to a migraine attack such as weather, noise, stress and alcohol.

The precise mechanism of what causes a migraine remains ambiguous, “almost 40 to 50% of all triggers of migraine are due to stress, sleeping problems, diet, menstrual cycle and environmental changes such as light,” according to Dr Mayowa Owolabi, a consultant neurologist at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, Oyo State.

Migraines can be very incapacitating and can unfortunately, last for hours or days, and pain medication frequently sedates the sufferer to the point of deep sleep.

Regular exercise has been regarded as an important method to avoid the illness. Exercise has the greatest impact on cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases such as heart attack, hypertension, and stroke. Many people realise that regular exercise can also serve as a treatment for other illnesses including migraine headaches. Unfortunately, many patients who suffer from migraines avoid performing exercise because they fear that physical activity may spark a migraine.  However a recent study highlights that exercise is just as good as drugs at preventing migraines and is particularly beneficial for individuals who are unwilling or unable to take preventative medicines.

The study, which gives scientific evidence that exercise works in the prevention of migraine, analysed how well exercise works as a preventative treatment for migraines relative to relaxation exercises and topiramate. Topiramate is the chemical constituent of the drug found effective in the prevention of migraine.

The study involved 91 migraine sufferers, a third of whom were asked to exercise for 40 minutes three times a week under the supervision of a physiotherapist, with another third doing relaxation exercises, and the final third given topiramate. The study lasted for a total of three months, during which the patients’ migraine status, quality of life, aerobic capacity and level of physical activity were evaluated before, during and after their treatment. Follow-ups were then carried out after three and six months.

Results showed that the number of migraines fell in all three groups. Interestingly, there was no difference in the preventative effect between the three treatments. Those who suffer from migraines are often directed towards exercise, but also a combination of yoga, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques reduces migraine frequency and pain.

How do exercises help to prevent migraine?

Experts explain that exercise works to prevent migraines by promoting the release of endorphins. Endorphins, neurochemicals in the brain, reduce pain when released.  Endorphin benefits are typically experienced during intense exercise like marathons or matches but moderate exercise in average athletes can also trigger their release. Walking or other aerobic exercise can also serve as a relaxing diversion.

For instance, yoga attacks the migraine problem by reducing stress and alleviating muscle spasms in the neck which can trigger migraine attacks. Also, exercise is thought to prevent migraines by reducing stress. When stressed, the brain chemical norepinephine is released into the bloodstream. Excessive Norepinephrine levels in the system, can cause migraines. Exercise releases another brain chemical, serotonin, which balances the effects of norepinephrine, reducing the stress level.

Exercise promotes better sleep habits. Adequate sleep is crucial in reducing migraines. It is suggested that we get between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night. Tiredness makes a person more susceptible to migraine.  Tired people are less able to respond to stress and environmental migraine triggers.