NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A combination of aerobic exercise and muscle relaxation may help ease migraine pain, a small study suggests.

Austrian researchers found that when 15 migraine sufferers added an exercise-and-relaxation routine to their usual care, the patients reported an improvement in migraine pain intensity over six weeks.

The findings, reported in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, add to evidence that exercise may offer some relief from migraine pain. A recent research review, for instance, concluded that while it seems unlikely that exercise prevents migraine attacks, it may make them less intense when they do arise.

For the current study, Dr. Martin Kopp and colleagues at Innsbrook Medical University randomly assigned 30 female migraine patients to one of two groups. Half stayed with their usual treatment only, while the other half added a twice-weekly exercise routine — 45 minutes of aerobic exercise and 15 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation.

After six weeks, women in the exercise group reported a greater improvement in migraine pain intensity than their counterparts in the comparison group.

The exercisers also reported fewer depression symptoms at the end of the study, though overall, their psychological well-being was no different from that of women in the comparison group.

The results leave several important questions, according to Kopp’s team. One is whether the exercise, relaxation or both were responsible for the pain improvements.

Another question is why women in exercise/relaxation group reported lesser pain intensity. It’s possible, Kopp and his colleagues note, that physical activity, relaxation and other non-drug migraine treatments all foster feelings of self-efficacy, which can help people cope with pain.

More studies with larger groups of patients are needed to understand how non-medication migraine therapies work, and which ones are most effective, they conclude.

SOURCE: Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, July 2008.