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Exercise for migraines: This is how you should exercise

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  • Do I have a headache or migraine?
  • Is exercising dangerous for migraines?
  • Can exercise trigger migraines?
  • What do I have to pay attention to when exercising if I have a migraine?
  • Which sport can be helpful for migraines?

Do you know that nasty throbbing in your head, the nausea and the dizziness? These are all symptoms of migraines. You still don’t want to interrupt your sports routine? You don’t necessarily have to. Sports medicine Dr. med. Helge Riepenhof from BG Clinic in Hamburgexplains how both can be combined and even used in such a way that it reduces the symptoms in the long term.

Do I have a headache or migraine?

“The word migraine comes from French and means something like ‘half head’,” explains Riepenhof. This means that migraines are often only one-sided. While headaches are usually dull and oppressive and distributed over the entire head, migraines are described by patients as throbbing, pulsating and only one-sided. But migraines are more than just a headache. Typical side effects include sensitivity to noise and light, nausea, vomiting and difficulty concentrating. “Some patients also perceive an aura, meaning they see so-called flashes of light in front of their eyes,” says Riepenhof. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol have no chance against real migraines.

“Migraines are a classic phenomenon in industrialized countries,” says Riepenhof. “It mainly occurs where people are exposed to a lot of stress,” he explains. If you want to exercise despite having a migraine, you have to keep an eye on your physical and mental stress levels.

Is exercising dangerous for migraines?

If you don’t want to do without sport despite typical migraine symptoms, you should focus on moderately intensive sports. You should especially skip strength training sessions. Because strenuous sports such as strength training can worsen your illness.

“During strength training, the stress level in the body increases significantly over a long period of time,” explains Riepenhof. Whether you’re lifting weights or using the lat pull-down machine: After intensive muscle training, the fat burning in the muscles continues for many hours. The consequences can be hypoglycemia or an energy deficit in the brain, which can trigger or intensify a migraine attack.
If you really want to pick up the dumbbells, you should ensure a high carbohydrate intake early on in order to prevent an energy deficit. Oat flakes or potatoes in combination with juice spritzers are ideal for this.

For the same reason, morning exercise should be avoided on an empty stomach. Because: “You shouldn’t increase your physical exertion without energy,” says expert Riepenhof. “If you reach maximum exhaustion, it often worsens migraines.”

Anyone who starts exercising without breakfast increases the risk of low blood sugar and the development of migraines. “Patients repeatedly describe that in phases of ‘low blood sugar’ the symptoms of migraines are significantly increased, last longer and are fixed for hours or even days,” says Riepenhof.

Can exercise trigger migraines?

“Yes, it can. Because in some people, when they exercise, their body releases the stress hormone cortisol instead of breaking it down,” explains the sports doctor. “In this case, you have to find out which sports are the trigger and at what level of exertion the symptoms occur – in order to then change the sport accordingly or make the exercises less stimulating,” explains Riependorf. If exercise becomes a frequent trigger for you, try, for example, moving your run from the city to the forest. There are fewer people and fewer cars there and that is much better for stimulus processing. A loud, busy gym with lots of fellow exercisers and background music is also not recommended for migraine sufferers. You can train at home with dumbbells and your own body weight or don’t go to the studio during peak hours.

What do I have to pay attention to when exercising if I have a migraine?

If you do high-impact exercise despite the migraine, the result is that you will only feel worse, you will get migraine attacks more often and feel constantly exhausted. So: piano! Start slowly and only do sports that train your endurance.

Very important: If you feel so bad that you have to take painkillers, it is better to stop your exercise routine. “Migraines are usually resistant to common headache medications such as ibuprofen or paracetamol,” explains Riepenhof. “And you should carefully consider whether you take special migraine medications such as triptans,” says Riepenhof. Because: Triptans constrict the blood vessels in the head that are opened by migraines and stop nerve activity. You should therefore skip exercise. A common side effect of triptans is dizziness. The dizziness occurs quite quickly after taking it. Although the symptoms of migraines slowly subside, the combination of exercise and dizziness is always unfavorable, as even when running or cycling you are more likely to fall and seriously injure yourself.

In general, if you have an acute migraine, you should make sure to exercise with as little irritation and calmness as possible. Especially if you are particularly sensitive to noise and light, you should prefer quieter locations and take more breaks. Tip: Extensive stretching exercises help you relax and reduce stress. Migraines are often aided and aggravated by “tension.” Stretching counteracts this tension and therefore has a positive influence on the symptoms.If you have a migraine, you should choose stretching exercises over intensive strength training

Intensive strength training should be avoided if you have a migraine, but stretching exercises help against migraine symptoms

Which sport can be helpful for migraines?

Sport can also be very helpful for migraine sufferers. Especially in the pain-free phases, you can use exercise to ensure that the next attack is milder or doesn’t happen at all. Endurance sports, such as jogging in the fresh air, are ideal for this. Your brain can absorb enough oxygen, which also helps with normal pressure or tension headaches. “Sport is a therapy for migraines,” explains Riepenhof. “Through exercise you reduce stress hormones so that the body can wind down and relax better. If you do endurance sports regularly, more serotonin is produced and released,” says the doctor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates the tension of blood vessels and can inhibit stress hormones. “This improves the frequency of attacks and also the intensity of migraines,” says the sports doctor. It is important not to overload yourself, otherwise it can even trigger a migraine.

Exercise can do a lot more for migraines. Riepenhof: “Through regular endurance exercise, environmental stimuli can be perceived and processed better. Sensory overload, which triggers attacks in migraine patients, can be processed better.”

Any form of light endurance training or even light exercise can help with an attack. “Patients repeatedly described that their strategy against a migraine attack was a walk. “We sometimes even recommend light exercise on an ergometer. If the pain is too severe and every step is just torture, of course it no longer makes sense,” says Riepenhof.

Sometimes you should admit to yourself that you should take a break. Because: If you are not feeling well, are sensitive to light and can hardly walk properly, then you definitely don’t belong in the gym, but in bed. If you feel just fit enough, then stay away from weight training and instead do moderate endurance sports in the fresh air – this way you have a good chance of reducing your migraine symptoms.

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