Exercise: A New Migraine Headache Therapy
Moderate aerobic exercise reduces the frequency, intensity, and duration of migraine headaches in people who have migraines without aura, according to a study published in Cephalalgia (2003;23:972–6).
People with migraines suffer episodes of severe headache, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. Visual disturbances or unusual head sensations, known as an aura, often occur before head pain in a migraine episode; however, some people experience migraines without aura. Migraines may be caused by rapid changes in the blood flow to the head; the aura is believed to be associated with narrowing of the blood vessels in the head, and the widening of the blood vessels may influence head pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraine treatment includes the use of pain relievers and medicines that affect the openness of the blood vessels. Although these medications can provide immediate migraine relief, long-term frequent use can result in additional headaches, known as medication overuse headaches, which are far more difficult to treat than common migraines. Furthermore, the use of these medicines can pose problems for people with stomach and heart conditions, as well as in pregnant or breast-feeding women.
Several studies have suggested that regular aerobic exercise might be helpful in migraine management, but exercise during a migraine episode can worsen symptoms. In a recent controlled trial, people with a history of migraines who participated in an aerobic exercise program had significantly fewer migraines—and those they did have were of less intensity and shorter duration—than did people with a history of migraines who did not exercise. Exercise increases levels of endorphins as well as other body chemicals that might reduce the number of episodes and the symptoms of migraine. Endorphins are body chemicals that are associated with reduced pain.
In the current study, 36 healthy people who experience repeated migraines without aura were enrolled in an exercise program. Participants stopped all anti-migraine medications they had been using at the beginning of the study and began the exercise program after six weeks. Each exercise session involved a 10-minute warm-up period, 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, and a 10-minute cool-down period. Participants performed an exercise session three times a week for six weeks, but not during migraine episodes. Participants wrote down migraine frequency, intensity, and duration during the six weeks before exercise and the six weeks of exercise. Endorphin levels were measured before and after the first exercise session and again at the end of the study. In the last four weeks of the study participants had significant reductions in migraine frequency, intensity, and duration. Endorphin levels increased after exercise in all participants, but those who began with lower endorphin levels had greater increases after exercise and experienced more improvement.
The results of this study suggest that exercise might be helpful to people who have migraines without aura, and that increased endorphin levels might play an important role. Additional research is needed to establish whether exercise has the same effect in people who experience migraine with aura.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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