Migraine is a chronic neurological disorder involving recurrent moderate to severe headaches called “migraine attacks.” Some people with migraine report that exercise triggers migraine attacks.

Migraine headaches typically occur on one side of the head. They generally cause throbbing or pulsing pain and may be accompanied by other symptoms.

This article outlines whether exercise can trigger migraine attacks and describes the similarities and differences between exercise-induced migraine headaches and primary exercise headaches.

It also provides tips on preventing and treating migraine after a workout and answers some common questions about exercise-induced headaches.

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Some people with migraine report that exercise triggers an attack.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes that migraine attacks can occur as a result of overexertion.

As such, it is possible that a person who engages in an unusually intense or rigorous exercise routine may experience migraine headaches.

Can exercise worsen the pain of a migraine headache?

A 2018 study investigated the effects of physical exercise on migraine pain intensity during an active migraine. The participants were females ages 18–50 years with overweight or obesity and a confirmed diagnosis of migraine.

The study found that, for a small number of participants, physical exercise consistently contributed to worsening migraine pain.

The American Migraine Foundation (AMF) states that the migraine-like headache a person may experience during or after exercise may actually be a primary exercise headache (PEH) in some cases.

PEH headaches:

  • have features similar to those of migraine
  • share symptoms in common with migraine attacks, such as pulsing or throbbing pain
  • may last anywhere from 5 minutes to 48 hours
  • are exertional headaches, which can occur after intense or strenuous forms of physical activity, such as running or weightlifting

However, while a person may mistake a PEH for a migraine attack, there are the following differences between the two:

  • migraine pain typically only occurs on one side of the head, while PEH pain can affect both sides
  • PEH has no association with aura, prodrome, or postdrome, which are phases of migraine attacks
  • PEH only develops after a person has exerted themselves, while migraine headaches can occur as a result of triggers other than exercise

According to the American Headache Society (AHS), other characteristics of exertional headaches include:

  • moderate to severe throbbing head pain
  • moderate to severe headache intensity
  • nausea without vomiting

Learn more about headaches after exercise.

Below are some treatment options that may help alleviate migraine symptoms following a workout.


People who experience a migraine headache after exercising may find it helpful to:

  • nap or rest in a quiet, dark room
  • drink plenty of fluids, especially if vomiting occurs
  • place an ice pack or a cool cloth on the forehead

In the early stages of a migraine attack, drinking a small amount of caffeine may help.

A person can also try the following self-care tips:

Ensuring good hydration

Around one-third of people with migraine report dehydration as a trigger. With this in mind, it is best for a person to ensure they drink plenty of water following a workout.

Some sports drinks contain added electrolytes to help rehydrate the body.

Practicing post-workout relaxation

Almost 70% of people with migraine report stress as a trigger.

People could consider incorporating a post-workout relaxation session into their daily exercise routine to help them wind down and combat stress.

A relaxation session may include the following:

  • taking a warm bath or shower
  • meditating
  • listening to some gentle music
  • reading a book

Limiting exposure to light sources

Many people with migraine report that natural and artificial lights trigger or worsen their migraine episodes. Medical professionals refer to this as photophobia.

Some people report that sitting in a darkened room helps alleviate migraine attacks. A person could try this after a workout to help ease the symptoms of exercise-induced migraine.

Medical treatment

To treat a migraine attack, a person may benefit from the following medications:

  • triptans, to ease moderate to severe migraine pain
  • drugs called ergot derivatives
  • nonprescription analgesics, such as acetaminophen containing caffeine or aspirin
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen
  • nausea relief medications

People who experience exercise-induced migraine headaches can take steps to help prevent their occurrence.

Regular exercise appears to reduce migraine frequency, perhaps by raising the threshold for this particular migraine trigger. As such, one way to prevent migraine after a workout may be to gradually increase exercise intensity and duration.

Doctor Mark Green of the NHF’s Health Care Leadership Council recommends that people living with migraine introduce exercise gradually into their daily routine. This may mean starting with a gentle form of exercise, such as yoga, and building up to something more rigorous, such as jogging.

It is also worth noting that people with an inherited susceptibility to migraine may be at increased risk of developing exertional headaches during or after exercise. Warming up before exercising can help reduce the severity and frequency of these headaches.

According to a 2018 review, while exercise appears to trigger migraine attacks in some individuals, it also seems that regular exercise can be an important method in reducing migraine frequency.

The authors suggest this may be because regular exercise increases the threshold for exercise-induced migraine.

In line with this, both the AMF and the National Headache Foundation (NHF) state that regular exercise can help prevent migraine attacks.

Although exercise can be a trigger for a migraine episode in some individuals, many people with migraine will benefit from routine exercise.

Below are answers to common questions about migraine attacks following a workout.

Is it normal to get a headache after working out?

According to a 2020 review, previous research suggests that PEH is relatively rare. The reviewers refer to one study that reported a PEH prevalence of 12.3%.

Based on these figures, exercise-induced headaches appear to be a somewhat uncommon occurrence.

Are exertion headaches dangerous?

Exertion headaches are not usually dangerous. However, the NHF notes that they can occasionally be a sign of a brain abnormality or disease, such as:

Anyone who is concerned about a headache following a workout should speak with their doctor, especially if such headaches are recurrent or severe.

Can a workout cause a tension headache?

A tension headache is a common type of headache that typically feels like a tight band around the forehead or a dull ache on both sides of the head.

Poor posture is one of several possible causes of tension headaches. In theory, poor posture or form during exercise could cause a tension headache.

However, there is no evidence to suggest exercise causes tension headaches. On the contrary, regular exercise appears to reduce the frequency of these headaches.

The AMF also states that, unlike migraine headaches, tension headaches do not worsen after routine physical exercise, such as regular daily activity.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience severe or repeated migraine episodes after working out. They should also contact a doctor if they experience headaches that are severe and only occur after exercising.

People who are already taking medications for migraine may require a review of their treatment plan. If necessary, a doctor may make changes to medication types or dosages.

When to seek urgent medical attention

A person should seek urgent medical attention if they experience a sudden and severe headache called a “thunderclap headache.”

Although rare, these headaches can develop after physical activity, and can sometimes indicate a medical emergency, such as:

  • a blood vessel tear, rupture, or blockage
  • an aneurysm
  • a stroke

Thunderclap headaches typically reach peak severity within a minute and last at least 5 minutes.

In some people with migraine, exercise can trigger migraine attacks or worsen an existing migraine episode.

However, some research suggests that regular exercise may help prevent migraines by increasing the threshold for this particular migraine trigger.

Medical experts recommend that people with migraine introduce exercise gradually into their daily routine to help prevent exercise-induced migraines.

This may mean starting with a gentler exercise and progressing to higher exercise intensities or durations over time.

Anyone who experiences severe or recurrent migraine attacks following exercise should make an appointment with their doctor. The doctor will work to diagnose the cause and provide appropriate treatments.