Exercise-Induced Migraines – What to Know, What to Do  

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as being physically pained by doing something you know is good for you.

Exercise does incredible things for the mind and body, but what happens when your favorite physical activity triggers a migraine? In this post, I’ll review why you may be experiencing exercise-induced migraines and what you can do about it. 

A Note About Migraine Triggers

Before we dive into exercise, I’d like to take a few moments to review the primary migraine triggers. Your body is a whole organism, so you likely have more than one trigger. Here are the top eight migraine triggers:

1.       Sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep.

2.       Vitamin deficiency

3.       Food sensitivity or allergy

4.       Chronic stress (physical, emotional, or mental)

5.       Underlying medical conditions

6.       Medication overuse

7.       Environment/chemical

8.       Genetics

Many people will experience symptoms in all the above triggers, so it’s important to identify the main trigger. Based on experience, food is the biggest culprit. The elimination diet can help you determine food sensitivities, and food can be an incredible healer. Supplements can help provide minerals and nutrients that may be deficient, and there are innumerable ways to reduce stress. You have options.

How Exercise Induces Migraines

First, it’s essential to understand that there are some risk factors to these types of migraines. Namely, the most significant risk factor is being a woman between 20 and 45, and it’s worse during the menstrual cycle. Men and adolescents can experience these migraines as well, but it’s certainly more common in females of child-bearing age.

In one study, 38% of migraineurs complained of experiencing symptoms after intense exercise.  More than half of these participants stopped competing in their favorite sport or stopped all physical activity, putting themselves at risk for even more health problems down the road.

Movement can trigger a migraine. Moving too quickly, turning suddenly, or going from sitting to standing too fast are common complaints in migraineurs who report exercise as a trigger. However, there are certain types of activities that are more problematic than others, including:

·         Running

·         Rowing

·         Swimming

·         Tennis

·         Weightlifting

·         Football

·         Activity that requires sudden physical exertion

·         Dropping your head below your waist

·         Battle ropes

Why is it Happening & How Do I Fix It?

There are a few reasons you could be experiencing migraines after physical activity. The biggest and most apparent reason is working out in hot, humid weather; however, here are the top five reasons for exercise-induced migraines in order of most likely:

1.       Dehydration

2.       Overheated

3.       Poor physical health/out of shape

4.       Higher altitude

5.       Not stretching or cooling down properly

If you look closely at the above, you’ll see they all have one thing in common: they can be fixed with behavior modification. Drink more water, fill yourself with the appropriate vitamins and minerals, watch the weather, know your limits, and believe in yourself.

One of my patients is a professional beach volleyball player. For years she was suffering with migraine. She didn’t have a choice about her exercise environment. To be a great pro beach player, you have to play in the sun and endure hours and hours in elements. The problem was, she was getting migraines during practice too. She considered leaving the sport because she just could not handle it anymore.  We changed her pre-game (and training) eating habits, changed her post game and training habits and now she’s playing better than ever.  Say bye-bye migraines.

Exercise-induced migraine pain tends to steal the wind from the sails. It can feel disheartening at first, and it’s probably a bit confusing. I’m sure most of the things you read on migraines these days recommend exercise as a treatment. Our bodies are so complex that what provides relief to one person causes pain to another. It’s one of the reasons I specialize in this field. You are not alone.


The Journal of Headache Pain: Migraineurs with exercise-triggered attacks have a distinct migraine

Healthline: Exercise-Induced Migraines: Symptoms, Prevention, and More

Henry Ford LiveWell: 4 Reasons You’re Getting Exercise-Induced Headaches