Symptoms of an exercise-induced migraine tend to be similar to other migraines, with sensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and other forms of stimuli in addition to a throbbing headache, Kuruvilla says. According to Gee, symptoms caused by physical exertion may include more of an aura. Interestingly, participants in the Dutch study who had exercise-induced migraines were more likely to have neck pain than one of their first migraine symptoms during the migraine attacks they had during their “normal life” (not necessarily caused by exercise).
How are post-exercise migraines treated and prevented?
If you have frequent headaches after exercise or exertion, it is important to speak to your doctor to make sure you are really dealing with migraines. “The first thing we always do is rule out dangerous causes of exercise-induced headaches or exercise-induced migraines. Aneurysms, brain tumors, and blood in the brain can be associated with headaches that occur with physical exertion.
Once the rarer possibilities for your symptoms are ruled out, your doctor will distinguish whether you have a condition called primary physical headache or whether you have an exercise-induced migraine. Kuruvilla says migraines are more common than primary stress headaches and there are more treatment options available.
“For acute treatment, we recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen, which are taken before exercise to stop the headache,” explains Kuruvilla. She adds that taking NSAIDs regularly can be tough on your stomach, so it’s important to be monitored by your doctor if you are relying on them for migraine relief.
Prescription drugs like beta blockers or stronger NSAIDs can be used to prevent migraines that are triggered by exercise, Kuruvilla says.
In fact, growing body of research suggests that an exercise routine can be part of some people’s migraine treatment regimen. A review published in the Journal of Headache Pain in 2018 analyzed 44 articles on exercise-induced migraines. The review’s authors concluded that while exercise can trigger migraines, regular exercise can be an effective preventative treatment for migraines. The review confirmed that it is not yet known exactly how much and what type of exercise would work best, but moderation may be key. A small study of 45 participants published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2021 found that moderate aerobic exercise was a better treatment for migraines than intense aerobic exercise.