Can Exercise Make a Headache Go Away?

Three women in step workout class doing lateral lunges
Exercise class. (Image: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Headaches can be painful, throbbing experiences that derail your to-do list and make you feel irritable. Fitness-minded individuals might wonder whether exercise can effectively address headaches as an alternative to popping some pain medication. In some instances, exercise might help make you feel better. However, persistent headaches could indicate that something more serious is happening. If exercise is causing headaches, or making them feel worse, back off from the activity to better assess the situation.

Sometimes It’s Worse

Exercising triggers headaches among 70 percent of Americans who commonly experience headaches, according to "Fitness" magazine. Headaches occur when blood vessels around the brain become inflamed, causing pain due to stretched nerves. Although exercise might make some headaches go away, others might experience greater discomfort from all the physical activity.

Bring On the Natural Painkillers

Exercise can decrease pain experienced during a headache because physical activity can release the body’s feel-good endorphins. These natural painkillers help block the discomfort caused by the stretched nerves and inflammation. Working out can boost blood flow to the brain, reduce muscle tension and reduce fatigue — all of which help minimize blood vessel inflammation, according to "Fitness" magazine. The Local, an English-language Swedish news platform, reported that women who completed hand-held weight training exercises two to three times a week experienced fewer tension headaches in a 2012 study involving 90 women. However, researchers weren’t able to connect exactly why or how exercise reduced the chronic headaches.

In 2010, U.S. News and World Report noted in the journal "Neurology" that teens with chronic headaches shared three factors in common: being overweight, smoking and not exercising enough. According to the study, teens who fit all three categories were more than three times as likely to experience headaches compared with teens who did not have these characteristics.

Working Through Migraines

There’s not a large body of evidence supporting the idea that exercise can make migraines go away, according to Fit Sugar. One possibility is that exercise contributes to discomfort because of higher blood pressure and increased heart rates. Depending on individual makeup and normal exercise habits, migraine sufferers might feel better after working out, but they might also experience exacerbated discomfort.

Give Exercise a Hand

You can help exercise do its job by drinking plenty of water, since dehydration can contribute to headaches, according to MSN Healthy Living. Try to breathe regularly, since improper breathing can cause headaches, especially for weightlifters who hold their breath while straining to lift objects. Avoid alcohol and caffeine before or during exercise, and apply cold packs when necessary to soothe muscle discomfort, since this can lead to headaches. Avoid overheating by exercising during cooler parts of the day. Relaxing through yoga could also help decrease headaches by focusing on deep breathing, relaxation and the elimination of stress, according to "Yoga Journal." If your headaches persist, however, see a doctor.

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