Exercise offers drug-free way of preventing migraines

On your bike: Exercise provides an effective drug-free way to prevent migraines

Going for a regular workout works just as well at preventing migraines as relaxation therapy and a common prescription drug, say scientists. All three treatments reduced the frequency of some women’s migraine attacks by as much as three quarters – although the average reduction was more modest.

Scientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, were surprised to find using an exercise bike three times a week could have such a potent effect.

The team, led by Dr Emma Varkey, studied 91 women from a single headache clinic in Sweden. They were between 18 and 65 years old, had neurologist-diagnosed migraine, with or without aura, and got headaches two to eight times per month.

They randomly assigned their subjects to one of three regimens for three months: 40 minutes on an exercise bike three times a week, relaxation therapy or daily topiramate.

Previous studies have shown that both relaxation therapy and the prescription drug topiramate are able to prevent migraines. The latest study found exercise is just as effective.

‘Topiramate is a drug of first choice which has shown great effects in studies,’ Dr Varkey said.

‘It was a bit surprising and very interesting that the change in number of migraine attacks was almost similar in all three groups.’

She added: ‘This non-pharmacological approach may therefore be an option for the prophylactic treatment of migraine in patients who do not benefit from or do not want daily medication.’

Dr Varkey said topiramate was best at reducing the intensity of migraines when they did come. However, the drug can cause side effects such as numbness, vertigo and depressed mood.

None of the women in the relaxation group or exercise group reported side effects, but eight women making up a third of the topiramate group did and three withdrew from the study as a result.

‘From a wider health-based perspective, it should be stressed that patients with migraine are less physically active than the general population, and that exercise has positive effects in terms of general well-being and the prevention of disease,’ the team added.

‘Additional and larger studies are, of course, needed to verify our results and to gain evidence for exercise as migraine treatment, but our results are hopeful,’ Dr Varkey.