It’s tough to beat regular exercise as a great way to be fit and stay healthy. Maybe you’ve even heard that exercise can help prevent headaches. But for some people, it can also cause them.
If you sometimes get headaches after exercising, you’re not alone. But is there anything you can do to avoid or reduce these episodes?
Here’s how to care for your head — before, during, and after exercise.
An exertional headache is one triggered by physical activity. This can encompass a wide range of actions, from an intense coughing fit to a strenuous workout.
According to Healthline, "People often describe exertional headaches as a pulsating pain on both sides of the head. The pain can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of days." Other symptoms can include neck pain, nausea, or effects on one's vision, such as temporary blind spots.
In a 2013 study done by Dutch researchers at a headache clinic, out of 103 people who frequently experienced migraines, 38% reported that at least one of their episodes occurred after exercise and other physical activity.
Primary Exertional Headaches: These headaches are caused solely by physical activity. While researchers don’t yet know why exercise can trigger head pain, it may be related to temporary changes in the blood vessels of the brain. Although painful, of course, these headaches are typically harmless and can be managed with an individualized treatment plan.
Secondary Exertional Headaches: These headaches may be caused by an underlying condition secondary to the act of working out. The condition could be fairly harmless — for example, a sinus infection exacerbated by physical activity that causes a headache. Or, in rarer cases, it may indicate a more serious problem — brain hemorrhage, a cancerous or noncancerous tumor, or irregularities in blood vessels leading to or within the brain.
It’s likely that your exercise-induced headaches are caused by a number of factors associated with regular exercise, such as dehydration or an improper running technique. To better understand any patterns, keep track of any connections between your workouts and your headache symptoms, as well as any other instances when you feel head pain. A headache specialist can evaluate the information you record and also consider whether the head pain you're feeling is caused by one of the following factors.
Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluid than it takes in — if you're sweating when you work out, this counts as fluid loss. If you don't drink enough water before and during exercise, it's easy to become dehydrated — and exercising in the heat can exacerbate fluid loss and make dehydration more likely.
A headache is often the first sign of dehydration, so if you've become dehydrated while working out, dehydration may be causing your exertional headache. If you’re mildly dehydrated, you may also feel thirst, lightheadedness or dizziness, a sense of fatigue, or dry mouth and skin, or may have decreased urine input. Mild dehydration can usually be easily reversed by taking a break and drinking more fluids.
Of course, an extreme workout may give you more severe dehydration, with symptoms including excessive thirst, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, shriveled skin, and a fever. If you feel any of these symptoms after exercising, seek immediate medical attention.
Not eating enough before your workout may also trigger an exertional headache. Glucose is your body's main source of energy; without enough glucose to sustain your workout, you may experience hypoglycemia, a drop in blood sugar. Signs include a headache, shakiness, a feeling of extreme hunger, dizziness, sweating, and blurry vision.
If you notice these symptoms during a workout, take a break and try to quickly consume a source of carbohydrates — such as a glass of fruit juice or a piece of fruit — to raise your blood sugar. To prevent another crash, continue eating foods high in complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber throughout the day.
Incorrect form during exercise may cause muscle tension which can also lead to an exertional headache. Work with trainers or watch instructional videos online, and practice in front of a mirror, to ensure that your workout leaves you feeling better rather than worse.
Improper regulation of breathing is another common cause of post-workout headache. Panting or holding your breath during exercise can cause your brain to not get enough oxygen, creating head pain. Breathe deeply and regularly during exercise, and take breaks if you need to regulate your breathing.
Overdoing it can also lead to head pain after your workout. Performing strenuous activity too hard or too fast can suddenly increase your heart rate, which may increase pressure in the blood vessels in your brain. Warming up allows your heart rate to rise more naturally and reduces the risk of blood vessel dilation in your head.
Of course, as numerous studies have shown, the benefits of exercise to body and mind — better brain health, reduced disease risk, improved weight management, stronger muscles and bones — can far outweigh any negatives.
So it is advisable to seek help from a physician if migraine pain is causing you to decrease or discontinue your moderate-to-vigorous sports or activities. For some people, low-impact, less exertional activities such as yoga or tai chi, performed as a preventative or in the prodromal phase of a migraine, may help to avert or alleviate migraine-stage symptoms.
To help avoid migraine post-workout, here are some tips:
Most post-workout headaches are nothing to worry about. But talk to a doctor if these headaches seem to happen suddenly. For example, if you've never had a problem after running but suddenly start getting headaches afterward, your doctor can help determine what might be happening.
If your headaches do not respond to over-the-counter medications, see a medical professional for more personalized treatment. Also seek immediate medical attention if you have symptoms of severe dehydration, if you black out after exercising, or if your head pain is excruciating.
Although there is no cure for exertional migraines, a headache specialist can guide you through medication and lifestyle steps that may help relieve their frequency or pain.
Take Mable's free DNA test to see what treatment plan might be most effective for you.
See our related blog, How to Exercise When You Live with Migraine.