Aerobic Exercise Significantly Improves Symptom Burden for Migraineurs

person riding a bike
person riding a bike
Aerobic exercise may improve migraine frequency, intensity of pain, and the duration of tension-type headache.

Aerobic exercise significantly reduces the impact of neck pain and tension-type headaches for migraine sufferers and reduces pain intensity, migraine duration, and frequency of migraine attacks, according to a study published in Cephalalgia.

Researchers conducted a randomized, controlled, clinical trial to evaluate the impact of a 3-month program of aerobic exercise for migraineurs who also suffer from neck pain and tension-type headaches. Between January 2013 and July 2015, 70 participants were recruited from a headache center in Denmark and through public advertisements.

Inclusion criteria were a migraine diagnosis with a minimum of 2 attacks and a minimum of 1 day each experiencing neck pain and tension-type headaches. Exclusion criteria included accident or injuries to the neck or head that could trigger symptoms, medication overuse headache, pregnancy, substance abuse, and severe mental or physical illness.

To establish a baseline, all participants completed a 4-week headache diary regarding migraine, neck pain, and tension-type headaches, then were diagnosed and examined by a neurologist, and assessed by a physiotherapist. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control group or an exercise group, and all continued to keep their headache diaries throughout the 3-month treatment period of the study, regardless of assigned group. Out of the initial 70 participants included, 52 completed the study. No significant differences in sex, age, and chronic migraine were found between participants who completed and those who withdrew.

Within the exercise group, significant reductions in migraine frequency, duration of migraine, and pain intensity were found from baseline to the end of the treatment period. Migraine days reduced from 9.2 days to 7.2 ( = .025). Furthermore, the exercise group experienced a marked reduction in the impact of neck pain and tension-type headaches, which greatly improved their ability to participate in physical activity. All of these positive effects were observed again 6 months later at a follow-up.

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No differences were found between the groups in migraine frequency, which was significantly reduced in the control group as well as the exercise group. As the control group was promised tailored physiotherapy after study completion and follow-up, this improvement could be explained by positive expectations regarding future treatment, or else could be a time effect phenomenon. Both groups also experienced significant improvements in psychological wellbeing.

Study investigators conclude: 1) “Migraine burden can be reduced by aerobic exercise,” 2) “Aerobic exercise can improve the ability to engage in general physical activity,” and 3) “Aerobic exercise is safe for persons with migraine and co-existing tension-type headache and neck pain.”

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Krøll LS, Hammarlund CS, Linde M, Gard G, Jensen RH. The effects of aerobic exercise for persons with migraine and co-existing tension-type headache and neck pain. A randomized, controlled, clinical trial [published online January 15, 2018]. Cephalalgia. doi: 10.1177/0333102417752119

This article originally appeared on Neurology Advisor