Monday, June 24, 2024

Why Do I Get a Headache When I Exercise? 3 MDs Weigh In

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Moving your body is supposed to feel good, bringing with it beneficial side effects like better sleep, stronger bones, and a boosted mood. But sometimes, working out can feel more like a headache — literally. If you’re wondering why you get headaches when you exercise, you’re not alone. According to Elizabeth Barchi, MD, a sports medicine expert, while exercise can prevent headaches and migraines, it can cause them as well.

To get to the bottom of this, PS spoke to Dr. Barchi and two other experts about why exercise headaches, also referred to as exertion headaches, may happen during a workout — plus how to treat them and when to see a doctor.

Experts Featured in This Article:

Elizabeth Barchi, MD, is a sports medicine and dance medicine specialist.

Noah Rosen, MD, is a neurologist with Northwell Health.

Sara Crystal, MD, is a neurologist and headache specialist at the NY Headache Center.

Exercise Headaches Explained

There are several reasons why exercise headaches may occur ranging from the mild (like exertion, fatigue, or not drinking enough water) to the more serious, (like an underlying problem or condition). To help distinguish them, experts break exercise headaches into two categories: primary and secondary.

Primary Exercise Headaches

Primary exercise headaches are usually described as throbbing, affect both sides of the head, and occur after strenuous exercise, per the Mayo Clinic. These headache can last between 5 minutes and 48 hours. But typically, symptoms subside shortly after the workout or strenuous exercise ends, Noah Rosen, MD, director of Northwell Headache Center tells PS.

So what causes primary exercises headaches? There is no exact cause. But experts have a few thoughts about why exercise headaches happen. Sometimes it’s just a matter of dehydration or tiredness, says Sara Crystal, MD, neurologist, and headache specialist at the NY Headache Center. Of course, the exertion itself also plays role, in addition to the increased blood pressure associated with exercise. “One theory is that strenuous exercise dilates blood vessels inside the skull,” per the Mayo Clinic.

Secondary Exercise Headaches

Secondary exercise headaches are caused by an underlying problem. The symptoms of secondary headaches are the same as primary headaches, except secondary headaches are also be associated with vomiting, loss of consciousness, neck stiffness, and double vision, the Mayo Clinic reports. The underlying problems associated with secondary headaches, include sinus infection, irregularities in the blood vessel leading to the brain, tumors (both cancerous and non cancerous, brain hemorrhage, and structural irregularities in the head, neck, or spine, the Clinic reports. These headaches last at minimum a day, but can last for several days

Types of Primary Exercise Headaches

Ahead, experts broke down a few instances of primary headaches caused by different types of exercise. (Fun fact: Headaches associated with sex are also considered exercise-induced, Dr. Rosen says.)

Weightlifter’s Headache

A weightlifter’s headache is a kind of headache experienced by weightlifters due to the particular type of breathing that tends to occur. “The theory behind why it happens is that it’s triggered by the Valsalva maneuver,” Dr. Barchi says. This is a common breathing technique weightlifters use when exerting themselves which involves, “holding your breath while you’re pushing and bearing down,” per Dr. Barchi.

Exertion Headache

This is kind of headache most experts mean when they talk about primary exercise headaches. An exertional headache is one normally caused by increased blood pressure due to intense bouts of exercise, Dr. Crystal says. “Exertional headaches are typically described as pulsating, last less than 48 hours, and occur only during or after physical activity. With an exertional headache, pain typically occurs on both sides of the head, unlike migraine, which is commonly one-sided.” Dr. Barchi said this type of headache could happen if, for instance, you’re at close to your maximum heart rate during a Spin class for several minutes.

Endurance Headache

Endurance headaches are thought to be caused more by exercising in the bright light or extreme heat. They’re also commonly related to dehydration.

How to Prevent a Primary Exercise Headache and What to Do If You Have One

For starters, don’t skip your warmup, says Dr. Crystal. “Always be sure to warm up for 15 to 20 minutes rather than jumping right into something strenuous,” she said. “If you are starting a new workout routine, be sure to start slow and let your body get acclimated for a few weeks if you have experienced headache symptoms from exercise in the past,” she tells PS.

If you develop a headache during a workout, check your hydration land drink water if you’re feeling low. Consider taking a 10-minute break to stretch and cool off, too. If the headache is better, you can return to what you were doing, Dr. Barchi says. “I would say go back at 50 percent of the intensity, and then try to go from there,” she adds. “But if the headache’s not getting better, even with 10 minutes of stretching, then that’s when I’d say call it a day.”

When to See a Doctor About Exercise Headaches

As we mentioned, headaches triggered by exercise can sometimes be a warning sign of serious underlying health problems, and these would be classified as secondary headaches. While rare, Dr. Rosen suggests seeing a healthcare provider when you have new symptoms or when a headache is “thunderclap,” meaning it “reaches max severity within a minute.” Other concerning symptoms are nausea, vomiting, rigid neck, or vision disturbances, as these are associated more with secondary headaches. Even if you experience an intense headache for only a short amount of time while working out, it’s better that your doctor know about it so they can best assess the symptoms and next steps.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones

Samantha Brodsky is a former assistant editor at POPSUGAR. She uses her gymnast background to inform her sports and fitness coverage, powering through Peloton videos in her free time.

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her passions and areas of expertise include women’s health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women’s Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.

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