Fitness Articles

The Exercise-Headache Connection

How to Prevent Exercise-Related Headaches

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  • Do you experience headaches only during (or after) certain exercises? 
  • What is the weather like when you experience exertion headaches?  For example, do you notice you only get the headaches during outdoor workouts when the temperature is above 80 degrees?
  • Does anything about your routine change the likelihood that you'll experience a headache?  For example, do your headaches occur less often when you do an extended warm up or cool down?
  • Does the amount of sleep you got the night before correlate with getting an exercise headache?
  • Does the timing of your pre and post-workout meals have an effect?
  • When do your headaches come on: during exercise or sometime afterward?
  • How intense is each headache and how long does it last?
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.
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About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

Member Comments

  • I learned the hard way to not do my normal routine if I have a headache...I don't get them as frequently as I used to, but I get tension & sinus headaches, and migraines. Had a milder headache so did my normal routine, less than halfway in and my head was throbbing and I was nauseated and lightheaded. Had to stop completely and go lay down. - 1/29/2016 3:47:38 PM
  • I noticed that my headaches, while they coincide with exercise, are actually triggered by dehydration. Sometimes, they'll even stick around for a couple of days after a particularly strenuous workout if I don't get back on track with my water intake. - 10/14/2014 9:34:47 AM
  • TISSUES001
    Thank you for this very informative article. As a sufferer of exercise-induced headaches, I think you've given a lot of good and useful tips. What was most useful for me was noticing which types of activities are more likely to cause a headache. When I was doing spinning a few years ago, I noticed that I always got headaches with certain instructors, and never with other instructors. It all had to do with the amount of warm-up. Some spin instructors jump right in and had us go to a "10" with only 5 minutes of warm up. The best spin instructors had us gradually work up to a "10" over the course of 20 minutes, so that the most intense spinning was during the middle of the work out, and gradually take it down. - 12/2/2013 5:21:21 PM
  • My hubby always tell me to warm up and after my exercise. Sometimes I do but I forget sometimes. This is a great article. - 6/17/2013 4:36:40 PM

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