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What Are Researchers Uncovering About Migraine?

Posted on June 01, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Joseph V. Campellone, M.D.
Article written by
Torrey Kim

  • Recent migraine research indicates that exercising for more than 150 minutes a month can reduce migraine triggers.
  • If you consume caffeine, try and ensure that you drink around the same amount each day, because withdrawal can trigger migraine attacks.
  • Studies find that inadequate sleep can lead to migraine symptoms, so work toward developing a consistent sleep routine.

Although migraine is not a new condition — in fact, it was documented in medical journals dating back to 400 BCE — researchers still don’t know as much about the disorder as they would like. Currently, scientists attribute migraine to neurological abnormalities caused by genetic mutations. Researchers are continuing to study causes and treatment options for migraine.

To understand what might trigger your migraine attacks — and what may help you treat the symptoms — it can be helpful to review the findings of recent studies on migraine and headache disorders. Keeping up with the latest research may help you find the best solutions for keeping migraine at bay.

The Impact of Aerobic Exercise on Migraine

The effect of exercise on migraine symptoms can differ from one person to the next. Some people say that exercise can trigger migraine attacks, while others note that aerobic exercise reduces their symptoms. “I thought I'd get back into exercise yesterday,” one MyMigraineTeam member wrote. “That was a bad idea, because I woke up with a horrible migraine.” However, another wrote, “As my physical therapist says, motion is lotion. I know, I didn’t believe movement would help with a migraine, but it can lower the pain and some symptoms.”

Researchers have found that exercise may provide significant benefits for migraine sufferers. One 2019 meta-analysis of multiple studies found that aerobic exercise led to “significant reductions in the number of migraine days.” The study also noted small or moderate reductions in pain intensity and migraine attack duration.

A study from 2018 found that regular exercise appeared to reduce the frequency of migraine headaches, but the results did not definitively reveal how often people should exercise to get those benefits.

Frequency and intensity of exercise were addressed in a study published in 2021, which indicated that participants who performed moderate to vigorous exercise for at least two and a half hours weekly experienced fewer migraine triggers (such as depression, stress, and sleep problems).

When reviewing outcomes for all of the 4,647 study participants, exercise frequency appeared to make a big difference in reducing headache days. Of those who got no exercise at all, 48 percent said they had 25 or more headache days every month. However, of those who exercised for more than 150 minutes a month, only 28 percent had 25 headache days or more each month.

Another study published in 2021 looked at exercise and migraine outcomes in 94 people with episodic migraine, and found that participants who performed moderate to vigorous exercise three times weekly or more had fewer headache days each month. The study authors also noted that the “association was significantly stronger in those who used prophylactic medication for migraine.” This supports the idea that exercise is an important supplemental factor in addition to medications or other therapies that your physician recommends.

The Pros and Cons of Caffeine With Migraine

Much like exercise, caffeine can affect each person with migraine differently. Although some people experience severe migraine attacks from consuming caffeine, others say caffeine is the best at-home intervention for treating severe symptoms.

While one member of MyMigraineTeam wrote, “I gave up caffeine, changed my diet, and started walking, so I’m having fewer migraines,” another had the opposite experience. “Woke up to slight throbbing,” she wrote. “Got some caffeine, meds, and rest — feeling better now.”

The research shows that caffeine can either trigger or help relieve migraine. A 2020 meta-analysis of 28 studies involving caffeine and migraine found caffeine to be effective and safe when treating acute migraine attacks (mainly when combined with other treatments). However, the study authors pointed out that “sudden caffeine withdrawal may trigger migraine attacks.”

The researchers recommended that people living with migraine should consume fewer than 200 milligrams of caffeine each day, and said it’s important to maintain the same level of caffeine intake daily to avoid the head pain that can accompany withdrawal.

Other researchers are investigating whether caffeine withdrawal symptoms are actually attributable to discontinuing caffeine, or if something else is at play. “It has to be clarified whether caffeine withdrawal triggers or merely resembles the migraine syndrome,” wrote the authors of a 2019 study. They recommended that studies should continue to evaluate the role of caffeine in migraine-like symptoms.

Does Sleep Affect Migraine?

Sleep and migraine have a cyclical relationship — some people say poor sleep can be a migraine trigger for them, while others say their migraine attacks keep them from getting quality sleep. “Had a hard time sleeping because of my migraine that started yesterday afternoon,” one MyMigraineTeam member said. Another wrote, “I didn't sleep well last night and woke around 5:00 a.m. feeling a migraine starting.”

Researchers have reviewed how sleep impacts migraine, and vice versa. One study noted, “The presence of a sleep disorder is associated with more frequent and severe migraine and portends a poorer headache prognosis.” In addition, the researchers said that most people who experience chronic migraine also suffer from insomnia.

A 2016 study of 357 people found that inadequate sleep quality is correlated with a higher frequency of migraine. In addition, people with migraine were found to wake often during the night or early morning, the study authors noted.

Regular, adequate sleep can lead to fewer headaches, the American Migraine Foundation notes, adding that you should aim to have a consistent sleep routine and get seven to eight hours of sleep each night to avoid experiencing migraine symptoms that can be triggered by a lack of sleep.

Talk To Others Who Understand

On MyMigraineTeam, you can join a supportive community where more than 68,000 people are talking about migraine.

Have you experienced sleep issues due to migraine? Do you ever get head pain after changing your caffeine intake? Leave a comment below, or go to MyMigraineTeam and start a new conversation today.

Joseph V. Campellone, M.D. is board-certified in neurology, neuromuscular disease, and electrodiagnostic medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Torrey Kim is the managing editor at MyHealthTeams and has over a decade of experience writing about medical conditions. Learn more about her here.

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