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The Exercise-Headache Connection

How to Prevent Exercise-Related Headaches
  -- By Jen Mueller, Certified Personal Trainer
Whether headaches are a regular part of your life or something you only deal with occasionally, let’s face it:  they are a pain.  Headaches can be brought on by a variety of things, including stress, illness and even weather changes.  But what if your headaches are caused by something that’s supposed to make you feel good and improve your health?

For some people, exercise can trigger headaches during a workout—or when it's over.  If you've ever suffered from an exercise-induced headache, you may wonder whether you have to give up on fitness in order to avoid pain.  Although there is no magic cure, there are things you can do to lessen the frequency and severity of headaches brought on by exercise.     

Symptoms and Causes
For some people, headaches result during strenuous activities such as weight lifting, running, swimming or rowing.  There are two different kinds of exercise headaches depending on their cause: 
Exercising in hot weather or at high altitudes can increase the likelihood of experiencing an exercise headache—even in people who don't normally experience the problem. 

Should I Talk to My Doctor?
No matter how often you experience exertion headache or how serious the symptoms are, it’s best to discuss the problem with your doctor so they can rule out any other medical issues and develop a plan for dealing with them.
Consider starting a diary to document when the headaches occur.  This can help you detect trends and also provide helpful information for your doctor when discussing your symptoms.  Document your answers to the following questions:
The more detailed you can be, the easier it becomes to find connections between your behaviors, routine, and the incidence of pain. 

Should You Work Out When You Have a Headache—or Skip It?
If you regularly suffer from primary or secondary headaches during exercise, work closely with your doctor to determine the cause of the headaches and a treatment plan before you develop or continue an exercise program.  Your doctor can give specific advice on exercises he or she recommends, as well as what you should avoid.
It’s never a good idea to try and push through pain

If you have a headache (whether triggered by exercise or something else), consider decreasing the intensity of your workout to something more comfortable. If you were planning to run, take a walk instead.  If the headache is significant, consider taking a day of rest.  Trying to just push through can end up making the problem worse. For general headaches that aren't a chronic problem, use your best judgment. Pick a workout and intensity that feels right to you, or skip exercise if your headache is worsened by exertion or you just don't feel up to it.

There are a wide variety of over-the-counter medications used to treat headaches.  Some can cause issues with dehydration or other side effects if taken before or during a workout.  If you’re not sure which one is right for you, consult your local pharmacist or physician.

Tips to Prevent Exercise-Related Headaches
There’s no guaranteed method for preventing headaches during exercise. While certain techniques may work well for one person, the same might not work for another.  You will want to experiment to figure out how to lessen the chances and severity of your headaches, while maintaining an active lifestyle without too much discomfort.  Here are a number of suggestions that may help.
While exercise can sometimes be challenging or uncomfortable, it should never be painful. Taking the steps to prevent and treat headaches during your workouts will help you adhere to an exercise program—and reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.

Kordi, Ramin, Mazaheri, R., Rostami, M. and Mansournia, M.A. "Hemodynamic Changes After Static and Dynamic Exercises and Treadmill Stress Test; Different Patterns in Patients with Primary Benign Exertional Headache." Acta Medica Iranica 50 (2012): 399-403. Accessed February 20, 2013.

Mayo Clinic. "Exercise Headaches." Accessed February 20, 2013.

Robert, Teri. "Primary Exertional Headache: The Basics." Accessed February 20, 2013.