Back to Back Issues Page
HeadWay, Issue #075 -- Exercise: Working for you or against you?
January 21, 2010

*Please note: URLs may wrap onto the next line. To visit the website, cut and paste the entire URL into your address bar on your browser*

In this month's issue:

Special Welcome

Exercise: Is it working for you or against you?

Say what?!  Endorphins

Special welcome

Welcome to the 75th issue of HeadWay!  Since the summer of 2003, HeadWay has been tackling all kinds of topics related to headache, migraine and cluster headache.  Today, HeadWay serves thousands of subscribers from around the world - patients, doctors, men, women - people of all kinds!

Oh, we've had a few unsubscribe as well - but I love it when they email me to say they're no longer suffering from headaches or migraine attacks!

All of HeadWay's back issues are available here.  And remember, as subscribers you have special priority input regarding what appears on the websites and, via the HeadWay MailRoom.

Thanks for your input and support over the past six and a half years - thanks for not putting up with headache and migraine, but fighting back!

Exercise: Is it working for you or against you?

That's what I need - more exercise!  So we resolve to start a new exercise plan, to walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator, to buy a bike.  But --- what's this?  When I exercise, I actually get a headache!  This isn't the way things were supposed to be!

Two things are very clear:  (1) We need exercise.  It's one of the best headache or migraine therapies out there.  It will do incredible things to fight your symptoms, and promote overall health.  (2) Exercise can cause headaches, trigger migraine attacks and seem to make things worse.  And how can I exercise regularly when my symptoms make life so un-regular??

I use this phrase a lot, but it's time again - you're not alone.  In fact, according the the Mayo Clinic, about 1% of people will experience an exercise headache sometime or other.  This issue is incredibly common, and sometimes complex.  Though we're not going to solve everyone's problems in one short article, I think we can take some major steps toward solving the problem.

The usual disclaimers

As I've said over and over, if you get a headache you've never had before, or your symptoms change, or the headache keeps getting worse, you need to see a doctor right away.  This goes for exercise headaches too.

Your pain may be a secondary symptom to a serious underlying problem.  Don't assume it's "normal".  Exercise headaches can come from issues with blood vessels or bleeding in the head, tumours, infections, and other causes.  It's possible that an exercise headache is the only symptom of heart disease (especially if you're over 50).  Talk to your doctor first.

A bigger issue?

Sometimes exercise headaches are called secondary exercise headaches (as above) or primary exercise headaches.  Even primary headaches may be coming from a bigger issue that you need to deal with.  For example, if you suffer from migraine disease, and also get attacks when you exercise, getting good migraine treatment overall will likely minimize your exercise headaches.

But while keeping those things in mind, let's see what we can do about the vicious circle that's keeping you from exercise.

A few tips for fighting exercise headache

  • Stay hydrated.  One of the most common problems during exercise is simply getting dehydrated.  Make sure you don't forget to drink water, and you may find that your symptoms are fewer.
  • Change the type of exercise.  Sometimes, simply the type of the exercise is what's causing problems.  Doctors often refer to certain types of exercise headache by the sport - for example, weightlifter's headache, which may come on due to the stress on head and shoulder muscles.  Could be a swimmer's headache, coming from that jump in the cold water, or even the pressure of your goggles.  Then there's jogger's headache, and ... well, you get the idea.  Try a different sport, or think about the sport you're involved in may be impacting your body, and talk to your doctor.  Also, look for advice from others specifically in that sport.  Try talking to a sports physician or physiotherapist.
  • Keep it regular.  Migraine brains are not happy with change.  Try simply keeping your schedule as regular as you can - and that includes your exercise schedule.  This also means that you're not suddenly changing how long or intense your exercise is.
  • Start slowly and warm up.  This means two things - first, start your overall exercise program slowly.  If you're getting a headache, try doing less for a week or two.  Also, be sure to warm up before doing exercise - and that means especially thinking about the muscles you're going to be using (including your heart muscle - start slowly!).  Focus on your neck and shoulders - they're used in most every sport.  Also - cool down when you stop, don't stop suddenly.
  • Breathing!  During some types of exercise, it's easy to forget to breath regularly and deeply.  Keep your breathing as regular as you can, and don't be shallow - get the air right in to the bottom of your lungs and breath it all out again.
  • Watch your posture.  Depending on the exercise, posture can become a problem.  Again, get advice from a sports doctor, physiotherapist, or others in that sport or doing that exercise.  And use your common sense.
  • Watch your blood sugar!  Sometimes exercise headaches come on because of the changes in blood sugar that are normal during exercise.  Try keeping your blood sugar up by regular, healthy eating before and after (try eating a meal within an hour afterwards), and possibly by what you drink during.  Some people have found that taking a glucose tablet before they begin makes all the difference.
  • Sunshine?  Sometimes there are secondary causes that we don't think of.  For example, going out for a walk in the bright sunlight - maybe the walk isn't the trouble, but the sun is!  Try some different sunglasses - you can even talk to your doctor about various options here.  Are there pollution issues where you are?  Noise?  Something you're wearing?  Altitude change?  Think outside the box.

Wait - I just wanted to take a pill!

Yes, don't we all!  But this shouldn't be the first thing you do, even if it does seem like the easiest.  Every medication comes with some side effects, and taking medication when it's not needed can make the problem worse over time.

Still, the benefits of exercise are so great, that sometimes they outweigh the disadvantages of taking medication.  If you've taken into consideration the suggestions above, and you're still having trouble, your doctor may recommend something.

If you're a migrainuer, your normal abortive medication may be suggested.  Aspirin and ibuprofen are common drugs that are taken before or after exercise.  Another anti-inflammatory that is sometimes recommended is indomethacin (ie Indocin, Indocid).

Ergotamine tartrate is also used for some patients.  Propranolol (ie Inderal, Deralin), a beta-blocker, has also been used with some success.

Remember, however, that the medication will vary quite a bit from person to person.  Make sure you've talked to a doctor who knows your medical history first.

Don't Give Up!

It's been said that if you could put the benefits of exercise in a pill, it would be the best selling drug out there.  There are incredible advantages to exercising - so don't give up.  Keep trying to find a way.  Even if you have to start very slowly ("I do one sit-up a day - when I get up in the morning, that's half...").  Keep track.  Try doing a little more.  Walk.  Try a few stairs.  You can make it happen!

To find out why exercise is so great, check out Headache and exercise.

More tips from dailySpark
Exercise headache at the Mayo Clinic

Say what?!  Endorphins

Endorphins are natural hormones released in the brain.  They're actually neurotransmitters.  Endorphins are released during prolonged exercise, which has led to the term runner's high, because they are natural pain killers and they tend to improve your emotional state.

Some people with chronic pain also take DLPA as a supplement, which leads to more endorphins in the body.  Read more about DLPA for pain here.

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
Back to Back Issues Page