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Is Your Exercise Routine Turning Into a Headache?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Do you ever finish a fast run or a terrific tennis match with a wonderful exercise high just to have it diminished by a headache? Exercise headaches occur, just as the name suggests, during or after strenuous and sustained exercise. Activities such as running, rowing, tennis, swimming and weightlifting tend to be some of the most common activities to precipitate the annoying headache.

The International Headache Society uses the term exertional headache to describe the headaches that will happen at least once for one out of every 100 people. Unfortunately there are only several small case studies that focus on treatment for this type of headache. However, if you experience them from time to time like I do, you might be relieved to know there are some things you can try to reduce your risks of experiencing the headache low after an exercise high.

Exercise or exertion headaches can be divided into two categories. Secondary headaches are precipitated by other underlying and more serious issues with the brain separate from exercise but symptoms may be brought on by exercise. If you experience an exercise headache for the first time or that also includes vomiting, double vision or neck rigidity – seek medical attention immediately to be evaluated.

Primary exercise or exertion headaches are usually harmless irritations that can last anywhere from five minutes to two days. These types of headaches are most frequently described as a throbbing headache that occurs during or after a strenuous workout. In most cases they can affect both sides of the head but for me they mostly occur in the top frontal area.

It is generally unknown what exactly causes a primary exercise or exertion headache although there are a couple popular theories. The most popular theory suggests that the headache is a result of blood vessels inside the skull dilating during strenuous exercise or activity. Another popular thought is that they are precipitated by a rapid drop in blood sugar.

Exercise or exertion headaches are most common during exercise in hot weather or at high altitudes. Those with a family history or personal experience with migraine headaches are more likely to experience exercise or exertion headaches as well. I notice that mine come most frequently when I have dressed too warmly for the room or weather conditions and/or have really pushed my heart rate during the workout.

Since exercise is one of the best combatants for many headaches, it is important to find ways to minimize the exercise response while maintaining a positive and challenging workout routine. Here are some ideas that may help bring on the exercise high while keeping away the headache low afterword.

Make sure you warm up before you exercise and cool down well after your workout. - This helps to gradually raise your heart rate which provides adequate time for the blood vessels throughout the body to respond and regulate including in the skull.

Slow and steady wins the exercise race - Make sure you are not working at too high an intensity rate for your fitness level. Either calculate and monitor your target heart rate, use a heart rate monitor or use the talk test to make sure you are not working out at too high an intensity. Since using a heart rate monitor, I am typically able to predict when I will experience an exercise headache after pushing my intensity during a workout. This information helps me to know what my next steps should be to minimize its response but also helps me monitor my workout as I go to make adjustments to lessen the risk.

Make sure you balance your breathing during your anaerobic workouts - Anaerobic exercise focuses on short, high intensity activity that causes the body's demand for oxygen to exceed the supply available. This can be a trigger to someone that is prone to exertion headaches if they do too much too fast and don't breathe appropriately while they are doing it. Make sure that you are breathing in your nose and out your throat/mouth as you participate in an anaerobic workout. Make sure you inhale slowly and deeply, hold for a few seconds and then slowly exhale while you are in an interval rest period. This can minimize the rate at which the blood vessels in the brain contract and dilate.

Determine if a dropping blood sugar level could be the problem - Some people are very responsive to sudden changes in blood sugar. If this is you and you think it could be the cause of your exercise induced headaches, try either taking a glucose tablet which provides 4 grams of fast acting carbohydrates or 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of orange juice before beginning exercise. Post exercise, have a carbohydrate rich snack or a full meal within an hour after completing your workout.

Make sure you are adequately hydrated for exercise - Dehydration can be a trigger for exercise/exertion headaches. Drink 16-24 ounces of water before you begin exercise plus an additional 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of exercise when you have finished. Remember that caffeine, excessive heat and alcohol dehydrate, so more water would be needed if those apply.

Use blood vessel constriction to your advantage - Caffeine causes the blood vessels of the brain to constrict. Because of this, many migraine pain relievers contain caffeine. Use this to your advantage and try a cup of coffee or the equivalent before a strenuous workout. Be sure to drink extra water after.

Do you suffer from exercise headaches? Do you have any remedies that have worked for you? Have you ever thought about a headache being connected to your work out?

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GABY1948 11/13/2019
Thanks Report
I don't suffer from this one. Thanks for sharing. Report
Thsnks Report
Thanks for sharing! Report
I learned several things from this article. Thank you Report
Thank you for this article! I thought it was my imagination! Report
I am a dancer and always leave practice with bad headaches. After researching about the topic and reading this blog, I am way more informed than I was before. I know that my headaches are most likely caused by the amount of food and water I consume before and after exercising. Also, after reading this, I may not be breathing correctly during my dancing. I am glad that many other people have headache problems! Great blog Report
Thanks for this article. In the past and very recently, I have been stopped in my tracks by debilitating headaches after workouts. This article reinforces some things I know but has given me other ideas to help and check out. Report
What a great article!!! as a migraine sufferer, it had some good tips...I was surprised about the coffee...since it is a diuretic, I thought it would be dehydrating for sure. I wkill definitely take some of the factors listed into consideration. Thank you, Mary for sharing this!!! Report
wow, I believe that's what happened to me last week (see blogs)... Report
I have intracranial hypertension (this causes a tendency toward extra CSF pressure in the skull) and this tends to make exertional headaches more frequent. I do find that not over heating and being well nourished and hydrated does help. I dress for a cooler temperature than that in which I am working out and make sure I have a snack first and plenty of water.
I frequently come home from a strenous hike(five hours at least 4000ft elevation gain) with a headache. I have noticed when I go on my own I don't get these headaches. But when I go with a group of people(I don't know) I get them. For me I believe my headache comes, because I am trying to keep up with people that are much fitter than me so I push the envelope on these hikes. I do the best when I go slow and steady and breathing in my nose and listening to my radio. I get into my own world at not worry about the group. With a group I usually find my breathing heavy. This is my lesson to me. Report
I echo SHOCKING1's comment. My dr. said I was prehypertensive. Trying to bring the blood pressure down with exercise (and diet changes) did not work because of the headaches. He put me on a HBP med. NO HEADACHES! I can finally workout. Really, really workout. Life is good. :D Report
Just a reminder - the culprit behind my exertion headaches was exertion hypertension. Please check with your doctor to rule out any "silent" killers. Simple medication has ended my headaches of this nature and brought a measure of comfort as I deal with other health issues Report
Thanks for mentioning this! I have a tendency to get frequent headaches, and it's been odd because most of the time exercise seems to lessen them, but occasionally I've gotten some minor ones near the end of a workout & checked my blood pressure only to find it normal. I would have never made the connection without your blog! Thanks! Report
I have chronic daily headaches, but exertion (particularly aerobic exercise) makes it a lot worse. The only thing I've found that helps is taking indomethacin (a powerful prescription NSAID) right after my workout. It seems to abort the exertion headache before it really starts. Report
After I ran my first 5k I had such a bad headache for the rest of the day even though I kept drinking water. I continue to experience headaches after a hard run and have tried eating before and after and staying well hydrated but so far nothing has helped. I will try the OJ and maybe some cafeine next time. Report
If I got a headache from exercise, I'd be worried I had clogged arteries and might have a possible Stroke, so I certainly don't ever get a headache during or after exercise. Otherwise, I'd be seeing my doctor, pronto. Report
had a headache (frontal) all day yesterday after a particularly strenuous ride the night before.i am a migraine sufferer and take a daily preventative, however have not had a migraine since jan 1, which i attribute to my weight loss efforts (have lost 20 lbs). drank lots of water, took an aleve, then one aspirin and it was gone by 6pm. i appreciate this article because i couldn't figure out what the cause was. i am bad not to warm up and cool down properly and i'm sure i don't fully hydrate beforehand. will make the appropriate changes and hope to not get another. thanks for the "heads" up. Report
Thank you. I've been having a lot of headaches lately. I also thought that they may have been due to high blood pressure. I'll try your suggestions. Report
Thanks for the information. Just yesterday I suffered a headache after exercising. First time for me. It only lasted about 5 minutes so I attributed it to a pinch nerve due to the type of exercise I was performing. I'll have be more in tune to what my body is saying to me from now on, for it might be something more serious! Report
I have exercise headache exacerbation that only recently began. I originally assumed that it was the increase of blood pressure, but never thought of using caffeine to dilate the blood vessels. Thanks for the idea. Report
For me, exercise usually helps my headache. I suffer from migraines regularly (although a bit less the last couple of months), and one of the things that helps (temporarily at least) is exercising - riding my bike in the fresh air, helps to clear my head for a while. Report
I have had headaches associate with my running - and have tried hydrating well before and after - sometimes it helps, sometimes not. But water is my #1 "cure-all"! Report
I am a frequent Migraine sufferer and cannot use medications such as Imitrex to prevent them since I have an underlying condition that worsens with Vascularconstrictor meds.

Often I am on the verge of a Migraine (JUST LIKE NOW) and cannot begin exercising since it will become a full blown episode. I dislike taking the medication too often since it makes me very sluggish , tired and I don't want to get into that "rebound" effect. However, it is the only thing that works

During the Spring and the Fall as the weather is changing my Migraine frequency increases. This really puts a damper on my efforts to exercise especially now, during the spring when I finally have the willpower, drive and determination to lose the weight I need to and become more toned.

I also have Hypoglycemia and have to ensure my diet is balanced with enough protein first with each meal and then the carbs I need. Additionally I have Hypothyroidism which of course makes it difficult to lose weight. However, I can often build muscle and tone fairly quickly which helps increase my metabolism.

I have always drank a lot of water, usually no problem drinking at least 8-9 glasses of water/day, including tea (1 morning and 1 afternoon which helps my migraines).

It often is frustrating because I feel like I in this vicious cycle. I trying to get into shape to not only tone but increase my metabolism as a result but get knocked off my feet with a pounding, nauseating migraine.

If anyone has had similar experiences and have found something that works for them, I'll all ears. Thanks. Report
I have gotten headaches after a hard workout for my whole life. For that reason, I often avoid working out in the morning, because I can't bear to have a headache the rest of the day. I talked to my Dr. about them and she said they are common and that some people get them after sex (LOL - I'm doing something wrong!).

Over the years, I've learned to avoid working too hard, stay hydrated, and eat on my long runs. But sometimes I still get headaches. If you're like me, one thing you should know is that you SHOULD NOT take naproxen or other similar NSAIDS *before* a workout in the hope of avoiding a headache. If you need to take something, take it after your workout once you are cooled off and well-hydrated.

Runners World has a great article this month called "The Pill Problem" that explains the risks of potential kidney damage from taking NSAIDS -- even one -- before a workout -- it's at:
Hmmm. Maybe THAT'S why I had a headache this weekend. Report
I only get once in a blue moon. I'll need to pay attention next time it happens. Thanks for the information. Report
I got an exercise headache but I think it was for two reasons one I didn't eat before working out and two I didn't drink enough water and I think I was dehydrated so every time I try to stay well hydrated. Report
I used to get headaches when I worked out specially strength training in the GYM. My problem was, i was not breathing appropriately during my weight training. Thanks for the info. Report
This is so me! Get these 'exertion' headaches all the time. I am also a migraine sufferer. I have found that if I work out and get my heart rate really high that's a trigger! Sometimes if I remember I will take some Naproxen just before working out to help try to prevent. Report
I quit doing yoga because I would get such headaches afterwards. Now I have some things I can try to avoid them. I'll remember to keep drinking and eat something beforehand. I was doing it after work, when I hadn't eaten since noon. Thanks! Report
I'm the headache queen. Most days I have a headache, some are accompanied by dizziness, some turn into migraines, some are sinus. I would give ANYTHING to have a headache free life! Report
I get these headaches, and they last for at least a day afterwards. Usually if I drink lots of water throughout the day then I'm ok. I like some of the ideas in this blog though. Thanks! Report
I used to have this problem when I cycled. I started using a heart rate monitor and this has helped a lot. Report
If I don't drink enough water, take my asthma meds or it is too hot, I can get headaches. For the most part, I don't. If my blood pressure is up, I also get headaches, but I just try and slow down my pace a bit and drink LOTS of water and that seems to help. Report
I don't tolerate high altitudes well at all. Drinking plenty of water helps.
Otherwise, no problem. Report
Hmm. I thought it was just me. I get those headaches. I suppose I never really thought much of it since I get headaches nearly everyday. The post-exercise ones tend to be intense and linger despite pain pills. Food sometimes helps. Report
:) Report
no headaches here!!! Report
I used to have headaches all the time. Once I was having migraines due to an allergy to a pill I was taking. Check that out. I also had allergies which the Dr. prescribed Singulair which got rid of a lot of headaches. Also hydration due to heat exhaustion or heat stroke got me headaches in the sun. Try to stay out of the heat if you have had either one. I've had all three. I don't have headaches anymore. Report
Yes I do get these types of headaches. I also get lots of migraine headaches. I thought that the two were related as the headache occurs in the same spot in my brain. I'm thinking it has something to do with a rise in my blood pressure which in turn triggers the blood vessels to constrict just like my migraines. Regardless of the reason, it's a pain to deal with. Thanks for the information provided here. Hopefully, I can workout smarter and lessen the occurrence. Report
Actually, it is the opposite for me; when I have a headache all I have to do is exercise and my pain goes away... ;-) Report
I get these when I'm dehydrated or work out too hard. It helps me to lay on the floor and concentrate on my breathing. It slows me down and the headache usually goes away. Report
I have never had a headache after a run outside or on the treadmill. However, I've had little dizzy spells because I pushed myself too far and too fast in a short time. But that disappears after a few seconds. Report
The only time I usually get these headaches is if I am working out really hard and am not hydrating myself enough. These headaches are so bad that the only thing that will make them go away is sleep. Hydration lessens them but doesn't get rid of them. So, I really really try to hydrate myself before and stay that way during exessive workouts! Report
Usually the only time I get a headache is if I haven't eaten enough. As long as I'm fueled well and hydrated well, I can go for a really long time and not get a headache. Report
only when i really push myself but it goes away right after i completely cooled down ; it's like somewhere in between finishing the intensity part and cooling down i feel like a bit "weird" but doesn't last long. and yeah, caffeine is my friend and always has been Report
Thank you for this article! I experience these headaches to the point that sometimes it prevents me from working out...because I don't want to go through that pain. I think my cause is pushing myself to hard and my heart rate was too high. I have to practice working myself slowly into exercise rather than throwing myself all the way in!
Now I understand! I try to avoid eating too much on the trail - I don't want to consume more calories than I burn hiking - but if the headaches I experience on a hike come from a drop in blood sugar, I'll eat one of the glucose tablets I carry form my diabetic husband. Report