What is a migraine?

A migraine is a headache disorder characterized by moderate to intense throbbing pain, nausea, and heightened sensitivity to external stimuli or the environment. You may have experienced a migraine if you’ve:

  • had a headache so overwhelming that it was difficult to work or concentrate
  • felt a pulsating pain in your head that was accompanied by nausea
  • experienced extreme sensitivity to bright light or loud sound
  • seen stars or spots in your field of vision

Migraine pain is generally severe. The pain is often isolated to one particular spot or side of the head. Migraines can also cause nausea or vertigo. In severe cases, they may even cause vomiting.

Unlike migraines, tension headaches are generally mild to moderate, steady, and felt throughout or across your head. Tension headaches don’t cause nausea or sensitivity to light or sound.

Other common migraine symptoms include:

  • severe, throbbing pain
  • pain that occurs in one specific spot on the head
  • sensitivity to light
  • sensitivity to sound
  • vertigo
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Approximately one-third of people with a migraine also experience an unusual visual phenomenon called aura. Aura can occur before or during a migraine. Aura may appear to you like:

  • wavy lines
  • zigzags
  • sparkles
  • flashing light
  • strobing light

Migraines with aura can even cause short-term vision loss, blind spots, or tunnel vision. It’s possible to experience the visual disturbances of an aura without ever feeling a headache.

These symptoms may feel worse when you move around, walk, or climb stairs.

You may also experience neck pain as a symptom of a migraine. Neck pain can be seen as the first symptom of exercise-induced migraines.

You should see your doctor immediately if you have neck pain and a headache along with a fever. You may have meningitis. Meningitis is an infection of the membrane covering the brain.

If you get migraines, you may find that intense exercise triggers this debilitating condition. In one study, 38 percent of participants experienced migraines as a result of or in association with exercise. Of those people, more than half stopped participating in their chosen sport or exercise to reduce or eliminate their migraines.

Although the reason is unclear, movement often triggers migraines. Actions such as rotating your body quickly, turning your head suddenly, or bending over can all trigger or aggravate migraine symptoms.

Exercise-induced migraines occur most often in association with certain vigorous or strenuous sports or activities, including:

  • weightlifting
  • rowing
  • running
  • tennis
  • swimming
  • football

A migraine headache, with aura in particular, may occur during exercise or sports that require great or sudden physical exertion.

In addition to strenuous exercise, your migraines may be triggered by:

  • emotional or physical stress
  • inconsistent or inadequate sleep or eating patterns
  • strong sensory encounters, such as bright sunlight, noise or noisy environments, or strong scents
  • hormonal changes
  • foods and beverages that contain alcohol, caffeine, aspartame, or monosodium glutamate
  • disturbances to your body clock, or circadian rhythms, such as when you travel or experience periods of insomnia

Migraines occur most often in adults between ages 25 to 55. Women experience migraines three times more often than men. Women between the ages of 20 and 45, and women who are menstruating are especially susceptible. People with a family history of migraine headaches are also more likely to experience migraines.

Exercise-induced migraines are more likely to occur in people who are exercising in hot, humid weather, or at high altitudes.

You should see your doctor if you’re in your 50s and suddenly develop the symptoms of a migraine. People who have migraine headaches very often will have a pattern of having headaches at an earlier age, sometimes even in high school. Headaches that begin later in life need further evaluation to make sure there isn’t something else that’s causing the headaches.

Your doctor will ask you some questions. Your answers can help them diagnose your condition. They may ask you these questions:

  • How often do you experience migraines?
  • When did you first experience headaches?
  • What are you doing when the migraines occur?
  • What kinds of symptoms do you experience?
  • Do any of your close relatives experience migraines?
  • Have you noticed anything that makes your symptoms better or worse?
  • Have you recently had any dental problems?
  • Do you have seasonal allergies, or have you recently had an allergic reaction?
  • Do you have any symptoms of fever, chills, sweats, lethargy, or periods of incoherence?
  • What changes or major stresses might you have experienced recently in your life?

No medical test exists to test for migraines specifically. Your doctor cannot diagnose migraine headaches through:

  • blood tests
  • an X-ray
  • a CT scan
  • an MRI scan

However, your doctor may order certain tests to try to determine other causes of your headache.

If you experience a migraine while exercising, stop the activity. Lying down in a cool, dark, quiet place until the migraine passes may help relieve your symptoms.

You may also take a prescription or over-the-counter pain reliever or anti-inflammatory as soon as the first signs of a migraine occur. Medicines known to help relieve migraine symptoms include:

  • ibuprofen (Advil)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • aspirin
  • sumatriptan (Imitrex)
  • zolmitriptan (Zomig)
  • dihydroergotamine (Migranal)
  • ergotamine tartrate (Ergomar)

There’s no cure for migraines. The symptoms generally last between four and 72 hours when they’re left untreated.

Many people experience fewer headaches as they get older. Women who experience menstrual-related migraines may find that their symptoms improve when they reach menopause.

It’s important to address the problem and not hope it will just go away. For some, occasional migraines can recur more and more often, eventually becoming chronic. Work with your doctor to find ways to prevent and treat migraines before the problem gets worse.

The best treatment for migraines is to prevent them before they start. If exercise is one of your migraine triggers, you don’t have to give up exercise. Here are some tips to help you prevent or reduce exercise-induced migraines.

Consider the weather

Exercising in hot, humid weather may make you more likely to develop an exercise-induced migraine. When the weather is hot and sticky, keep yourself hydrated. Exercise in a cool, temperature-controlled environment if possible, such as an air-conditioned gym, or wait until the worst of the heat and humidity has passed. Consider switching your workout time to the early morning when it’s generally cooler, especially during hot summer months.

Learn more: Understanding why the weather affects your migraines »

Consider the altitude

If you’ve recently moved to or are visiting a location at high altitude, wait two days before beginning your exercise regimen. This will allow your body to get used to the lower oxygen levels. Drinking more fluids and staying away from alcohol can also help.

Warm up and cool down

Spend 15 minutes warming up before engaging in intense activity and five minutes cooling down afterward.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration may be a trigger for migraines. Carry a water bottle with you while you exercise, and sip often.

Additional preventive methods

As with any migraine, exercise-induced or not, you should also take other preventive measures, such as:

  • sticking to regular eating and sleeping times
  • reducing stress and anxiety
  • cutting back on caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
  • taking OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen
  • taking anti-inflammatory drugs, such as indomethacin, or blood pressure medication, such as propranolol, which have been shown to help prevent headaches

If your exercise-induced migraines persist, you may ultimately need to switch to a new sport or exercise regimen that doesn’t exacerbate your symptoms. Aerobic exercise like fast walking or lower intensity exercises that also promote relaxation, like yoga, may reduce or eliminate your migraine symptoms.