In a recent study, regular exercise, performed at least three times a week for 40 minutes, was as effective as medication, but without side effects


Migraine headaches are a source of pain, loss of work, and decreased quality of life for a significant number of people. Medication options include drugs that are taken at the onset of symptoms or drugs that are taken daily to prevent attacks from occurring or lessen the pain when they do. Non-medication options that have been shown to be helpful are behavioral therapies such as relaxation, biofeedback, and stress management. A recent study compared a regular exercise program to two preventative strategies: medication and relaxation.

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Ninety-one patients were enrolled in this study. All the participants had had migraines for at least a year, were between ages 18 and 65 years. All experienced headaches two-eight times per week. The study's subjects were divided into three groups. All three groups kept a journal of headache frequency and severity for one month before starting on their specific intervention.

One group received a standard drug for migraine, topiramate. One group received training and supervision in specific relaxation techniques, and a third received training and supervision in an exercise program.

The members of the relaxation group practiced breathing, stress management, and relaxation techniques for six sessions at the clinic and performed their routines at home with a CD. The topiramate group had their medication adjusted regularly to their maximally-tolerated dose.

The exercise group learned a program of indoor cycling with a 15-minute warm up, 20-minute exercise and 5-minute cool down. They were required to exercise at least three times per week at home and/or at the clinic. All participants were free to use acute migraine medication if needed.

The study showed that regular exercise, performed at least three times a week for 40 minutes, was as effective as topiramate and behavioral management for decreasing the weekly episodes of migraines. There were no adverse side effects in the exercise or behavioral therapy group and none that were considered to be serious in the medication group.

The researchers did not speculate as to the physiologic mechanism by which the exercise program was helpful. They concluded that regular exercise is an effective preventative strategy for migraine sufferers and may be especially helpful for those patients who do not wish to take daily medication.

The study was published online ahead of print in the journal Cephalagia.

Image: Kamira/Shutterstock.

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