Migraine Headache and Resistance Exercise: Can It Reduce Attacks?

Exercise is often prescribed by physicians to help those with migraine better manage their condition. It's been reported to help reduce the burden of the disease and increase one's quality of life. But can resistance exercise help?

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What are the Benefits of Resistance Exercise for Migraine Relief?


A migraine is a severe, often debilitating headache that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Migraine are typically unilateral (affecting the one side of the head) and have a throbbing type headache, with accompanying nausea and vomiting. Migraine attacks also cause sensitivity to light and/or sound.


Exercise is one of the best non-pharmacological strategies in migraine treatment. Benefits of regular exercise include reduced frequency of migraine attacks, decreased pain intensity during attacks, and decreased duration of attacks.


Also, exercise has been shown that exercise can have many other positive effects on your body including reduction in stress levels, improved sleep quality and efficiency, increased functional, as well as improved cardiovascular health.


In a recent study, authors compared two types of exercise, strength training and aerobic exercise, in order to compare their efficacy in migraine management.


The results of this systematic review found exercise, both strength and aerobic, were effective at reducing migraine frequency. The most interesting finding of the study was that strength training, or resistance training, was superior to aerobic exercise decreasing migraine burden!



Why is Resistance Exercise Important for Migraine Sufferers?


While exercise has been strongly recommended in the management of migraine disease, it’s often not explained how exercise can positively affect the disease. There are five primary reasons that exercise can have a profound effect on migraine. These reasons are improved sensory processing, improved pain modulation, improved sleep quality and efficiency, and increased mitochondrial biogenesis.


Improved Sensory Processing

Migraine is a described sensory processing disorder. Studies have shown changes in how the migraine brain processes sensory stimuli, such as light and sound. Those with migraine also report sensitivities to smells, touch, and movement.


Studies do indicate that exercise can help those with sensory processing disorders, especially with high intensity exercise. This is because exercise leads to functional & structural changes in the brain through a process called neuroplasticity.


These changes help our central nervous system to better integrate sensory stimuli. In turn, we become less sensitive to various stimuli the more we stress our nervous system in controlled manners.


In a more simple explanation: We use movement to better process sensory stimuli.


Improved Pain Modulation

Physical activity and exercise can help lower pain and increase pain threshold hold levels. Exercise can also have an analgesic (pain relieving) effect for some people. There are several mechanisms in which exercise or physical activity changes our pain perception.


Regular physical activity or exercise can decrease central excitability. This is important as migraine has been shown to have increased cortical excitability that can increase the triggering of attacks. Thus, exercise increases the amount of stimulation needed to cause a pain reaction.


Other mechanisms that facilitate pain modulation is the release of endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids. The release of the chemicals in our central nervous system creates an analgesic effect.


These benefits can be derived during both a single bout of exercise, and can be further enhanced with adherence to a long-term, consistent regime.


Helps Improve Sleep

The relationship between sleep and migraine has been well documented. Lack of sleep is a known trigger for many with migraine. And sleep disorders are a common comorbidity in migraine.


Sleep is very important for our body. It’s the time when our body & mind can recharge. There is good research to support the use of sleep interventions that can improve sleep quality and efficiency that results in decreased headache frequency and intensity.


We can use exercise to help us sleep even better. Regular physical activity can help us fall asleep faster so we spend less time laying awake in bed. Exercise can increase sleep efficiency so that when we sleep it’s of higher quality. And exercise interventions can decrease sleep disturbances, so you wake up less often throughout the night.


Stimulates Mitochondrial Biogenesis

Migraine is a common complaint for those with mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been shown to increase neural excitability. This increased excitability is associated with an increase in the likelihood of a migraine attack.


It has been theorized that brain energy deficits can lead to increased migraine susceptibility, resulting in more frequent attacks and lower triggering thresholds. A common migraine attack trigger is low blood sugar or prolonged fasting.


Our brains are very active and consume a ton of energy. This energy usage goes up when we are thinking, active, or are being overstimulated by sensory stimuli. Thus the migraine brain needs more energy producing cells to support brain function.


Regular exercise, both strength training and aerobic exercise, stimulates our body to increase mitochondrial biogenesis. Our brain will adapt to the stresses of exercise by stimulating mitochondrial production.


By increasing the number of energy producing cells in our brain we can help to further support optimal brain function, and decrease migraine burden.


Where to Start with A Resistance Exercise Program

Starting a new resistance program can be a scary undertaking if you have never exercised before. And your body may not be ready for high intensity levels of exercises. Here are some tips to help you get started and build a program that can effectively manage your migraine.


Start with creating a schedule of how many days per week you want to exercise. This schedule should generally be 2 to 3 days, but can be 1 day per week to start if you are very sensitive to physical exertion with your migraine. Then go to 2 sessions per week after you feel comfortable progressing.


Plan to start with 20-30 minutes for a session, but it can be as low as 10 minutes to start if necessary. Make sure to include a warm up in order to prepare the body for more intense activity levels.


When deciding which exercises should be included consider a combination of lower body and upper body exercises. Be sure to start with lighter weights early on in a program. Many people feel good when starting a strength program, but can easily overwork themselves. It’s not necessary to work close to your maximum capacity to achieve benefits of resistance exercise.


Summary

Resistance exercise can be an effective non-pharmacological treatment in the prevention of migraine attacks. A consistent exercise program can help improve sensory processing in the brain, improve pain modulation, enhance sleep quality, and improve brain metabolism.


Consider beginning a resistance exercise program to help manage your migraine. It can help to control reduce the frequency of attacks, prevent the development of chronic migraine, reverse chronicity of disease, and improve your quality of life.


It can be beneficial to work with a professional, like myself, who understands the complexities of exercising with chronic pain conditions. If you have never lifted weights before this can be key in avoiding exacerbation of your migraine condition. I am able to design a strength training program that can specifically suite your migraine needs, and can instruct you on the correct form for a variety of exercises


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