Some people experience exercise-induced migraine, especially if the workout is intense. For relief, try to lie down in a cool and dark place. Over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatory drugs can also help.

A migraine episode 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 episode 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

Certain triggers can bring on a migraine episode. For some, exercise is the culprit. Data suggests that migraine has a prevalence of at least 25%.

Among people with migraine, the prevalence of developing it after exercise is somewhere around 12.3%, according to an older study mentioned in a 2020 review.

Read on to learn more about what causes and how to treat exercise-triggered migraine.

A variety of causes and risk factors have been linked to migraine pain, though they’re not universal. The contributing factors that lead to a migraine attack vary from person to person.


While migraine triggers can bring on an episode, many people experience spontaneous migraine episodes in the absence of triggers. Researchers are working to understand why.

So far, the exact underlying cause of migraine is unclear. Researchers have identified a few contributing factors:

  • electrical activity in the brain
  • levels of serotonin in the body
  • genetics
  • environmental factors

How exercise triggers migraine

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

An exercise-induced migraine episode tends to occur more often in association with certain vigorous or strenuous sports or activities, including:

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

A migraine attack, particularly one with aura, may occur during exercise or sports that require great or sudden physical exertion.

For those who experience exercise as a migraine trigger, the environment can also be a risk factor for an attack. Exercise-induced migraine is more likely to occur in people who are working out in hot, humid weather, or at high altitudes.

Other risk factors

A variety of factors may play a role in your risk of migraine:

  • Age: Migraine episodes can start at any age, but they occur most often in adults around age 35 and around age 50.
  • Sex: Women are 2–3 times more likely to experience a migraine than men, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Women who are menstruating are especially susceptible.
  • Family history: People with a family history of migraine attacks are also more likely to experience migraine.

You should talk with your doctor if you’re in your 30s or 50s and suddenly develop symptoms of a migraine.

People who experience migraine episodes very often typically start experiencing these 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 them.

If you experience a migraine episode while exercising, stop the activity. Lying down in a cool, dark, quiet place until the attack 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 episode occur. Medications for migraine symptoms include:

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

Your average tension headache is generally mild to moderate, steady, and felt throughout or across your head. Tension headaches don’t cause nausea or sensitivity to light or sound.

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

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 25–30% of people affected by migraine also experience an unusual visual phenomenon called aura, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). Aura can occur before or during a migraine episode. Aura may appear to you like:

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

Migraine 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 may be the first symptom of an exercise-induced migraine.

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.

Can you prevent exercise-induced migraine?

The best treatment for migraine is to prevent an attack before it starts. If exercise is one of your migraine triggers, you don’t have to give it up. Doing the following can help:

  • avoid or limit exercising in hot weather
  • acclimate for 2 days before exercising in a high-altitude area
  • stay hydrated
  • avoid or limit alcohol and caffeine
  • always warm up and cool down
  • have a set sleep routine
  • limit stress and anxiety

How is migraine diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you various questions about your exact symptom history. No exact medical imaging tests like an MRI can screen for migraine.

However, your doctor may order certain tests to rule out other, potentially dangerous, underlying conditions related to your head such as an aneurysm or a tumor.

How long does an exercise-induced migraine last?

There’s currently no cure for migraine. If left untreated, migraine symptoms generally last 4–72 hours.

Can exercise cause ocular migraine?

It’s possible for exercise to trigger ocular or retinal migraine. This means you might experience temporary vision disturbance or loss, and this may or may not be accompanied by a headache.

What are other triggers for migraine?

In addition to exercise, other migraine triggers include:

  • 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

It’s important to address your migraine symptoms. Hoping they’ll just go away won’t help. For some, an occasional migraine can recur more and more often, eventually becoming chronic.

It’s important that you work with your doctor to find ways to prevent and treat migraine to help prevent your condition from getting worse.