Have you ever finished a workout only to develop a throbbing headache? Frustrating, isn’t it? Exertional headaches are a rather common phenomenon and are most likely to occur after strenuous exercise, including weight training. Some people with exertional headaches also have similar head pain when they strain to have a bowel movement or when they cough or sneeze. The headaches can come on only on occasion or be a frequent problem.
What do headaches that come on with exercise feel like? Head pain that comes on after a workout is often throbbing or pulsating head pain that affects both sides of the head and can last from 5 minutes to several hours. Less commonly, an exercise headache will hang around for a few days. Any headache is inconvenient, but you might wonder whether these headaches are a sign of other health issues and what you can do to prevent them?
Exercise-Induced Headaches Can Make Exercise Unpleasant
Exercise is challenging enough without head pain! No wonder people who experience exertional headaches want to know how to prevent them! What causes them and why do some people get them and others not?
Scientists don’t know why some people get a headache during or after a workout, but they have some theories. During exercise, your blood vessels change in diameter as they expand to deliver more oxygen to tissues. Experts believe that this may play a role in headaches triggered by exercise. Dilation of blood vessels plays a role in migraine headaches too. In fact, research suggests that people who have migraines or are genetically susceptible to them are more likely to experience exertional headaches.
Another factor may be a rise in pressure around the brain brought on by exercise. In turn, this can impact how blood vessels in the brain behave. When the pressure rises, it can also stimulate the release of neurotransmitters that contribute to head pain.
Should You Worry about Exertional Headaches?
Most exertional headaches are benign and aren’t due to serious pathology in the brain. However, a small percentage may be triggered by a more serious problem such as dilated blood vessel in the brain, called an aneurysm, structural abnormalities in the brain, or even a brain tumor. Sometimes, cerebral vascular disease due to blocked arteries that lead to the brain or even cardiovascular disease can cause an exertional headache.
Before becoming alarmed, this is not the cause of most exercise-induced headaches. Still, most physicians recommend getting an imaging study, like an MRI, if these headaches are new for you or if they’re getting worse or more frequent. Once you get a clean MRI of the brain, you can breathe a sigh of relief and know that you have common, exercise-induced headaches, a condition that scientists don’t completely understand but is unlikely to be dangerous.
Some red-flag signs that a headache may have a more serious cause include:
· A stiff neck
· Double vision or loss of vision
· Loss of consciousness
If you have any of these symptoms along with a headache, get medical attention right away.
Exertional headaches can come and go. You may have them for several months only to have them disappear and come back later. These headaches are more common after the age of 40 but can occur at any age.
What Type of Exercise Brings on Exertional Headache?
Exertional headaches are more frequent after high-intensity exercise. In contrast, low-intensity workouts, like yoga, are less likely to bring on head pain. Studies show the most common activities that bring on exertional head pain are long-distance running, aerobic exercise, and weightlifting.
According to one study, exertional headaches brought on by intense exercise, including weight training, go away faster than headaches triggered by long periods of moderate-intensity cardio. For example, running a long distance at a moderate-intensity could lead to a longer-lasting headache than brief, intense exercise.
How to Prevent Exercise-Induced Headaches
One way to lower your risk is to drink plenty of fluids before a workout. There’s some evidence that dehydration can bring on a headache or worsen the symptoms. Also, munch on a snack that contains protein and carbohydrates before a workout. Shifts in blood sugar can trigger a headache in some people. These shifts may be more common in diabetics and pre-diabetics.
If possible, exercise in a cool environment. Working out in a hot or humid room can sometimes trigger a headache if you’re susceptible to them. That’s because your blood vessels dilate more when your surroundings are hot so you can release more heat. The change in blood vessel diameter can trigger a headache in some people. Likewise, avoid extreme cold since this causes blood vessels to constrict and that too can trigger a headache in some people. Stay away from temperature extremes.
You’re also more likely to experience a headache during and after exercise if you work out at a high altitude. So, if you’re headed to the mountains of Colorado and experience a headache after a workout, the altitude may explain why.
Don’t forget to do a full warm-up. In fact, if you have a history of exertional headaches, extend the length of your warm-up. There’s some evidence that warming up well beforehand can lessen the odds of developing a headache afterward. Likewise, cool down slowly and keep your body moving at a low intensity for at least 5 minutes after a workout is over.
Keep a food diary too to make sure certain foods aren’t triggering your headaches. One culprit is caffeine. Caffeinated beverages cause blood vessels to change in size. Other foods that can trigger a headache in some people include the food additive monosodium glutamate, foods that contain preservatives, aged cheese, tomato-based foods, and nuts.
Since fatigue can trigger headaches too, including exertional headaches, get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Make sure your sleeping area is dark to avoid disrupting your natural circadian rhythm. Skip devices that emit blue light within 2 hours of bedtime since they can interfere with sleep and throw your natural sleep cycle off.
· American Migraine Association. “Primary Exercise Headache”
· U.S. Pharmacist. “Exercise-Induced Headaches: Prevention, Management, and Treatment”
· National Headache Foundation. “Exertional Headaches”