How to Avoid Getting Headaches After You Exercise

Updated on January 5th, 2021
Headache After Exercise

Stress is a familiar cause of tension headaches, which, luckily, can be avoided with appropriate stress-reduction techniques. One excellent way to ease stress is through exercise—but in specific circumstances, physical exertion can simply aggravate the headache (disheartening, we know).

Headache after Exercise

Why do we get headaches?

It’s essential to note that there are several possible causes of headaches, plus the severity and type of headache can also vary. A few common causes are orthostatic intolerance, neck pain, an altered gut microbiome, and inflammatory foods. Poor sleep, exercise, and stress may also be culprits [1].

Though working out is intended to improve mental and physical health by increasing endorphins, some individuals experience less-pleasant residual effects, like exertion headaches. 

Causes

1. Exertional headache

An exertional headache is a headache that individuals get merely from exercising and has no underlying reasons.

Symptoms of primary exertional headache include [2]:

  • pain, generally on both sides of the head
  • a pulsating sensation
  • The pain can last between five minutes to forty-eight hours and may feel akin to a migraine.
  • Individuals may be more likely to get a primary exertional headache after exercising at a high altitude or in hot conditions.

A secondary exertional headache develops because of an underlying condition, such as

  • heart disease
  • a tear in an artery
  • a brain tumor or lesion
  • RCVS (reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome) which is a narrowing of the blood vessels
  • stroke, or bleeding in the brain

2. Dehydration headache

If individuals do not replace fluids during or after exercise, they may become dehydrated. Electrolytes and water keep the body hydrated, and individuals lose both of these through sweating [3]. When an individual is dehydrated, they may develop a headache.

Other symptoms that may indicate dehydration include:

  • dark yellow urine
  • feeling thirsty
  • fatigued or feeling lethargic 
  • dry mouth or lips
  • producing less urine than usual
  • dizziness
  • feeling irritable

[Read: How to Get Rid of Quarantine Headaches]

3. You have spent enormous time in the sun

Sun exposure can trigger headaches in a lot of individuals, even when they aren’t exercising. This is particularly true if it’s hot out.

How to treat it

  1. If you’ve been exercising outdoors and develop a headache, go inside if you can. Try to spend some time in a low-light or darkroom.
  2. If the weather’s warm, bring a cup of water and a damp, cool washcloth. Place it over the forehead and eyes for a few minutes.
  3. Taking a lukewarm shower may also help.
  4. If you don’t have enough time to cool down, you can also take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen.

How to prevent it

  1. Before heading outdoors to work out, grab a wide-brimmed hat or a pair of sunglasses to shield the eyes and face. If it’s warm out, you may also try wrapping a damp bandana around the neck.
  2. Carrying a mini spray bottle containing cold water can also help. Use it to spray the face regularly. Pay attention when you are short of breath or feeling very hot and seek further cooling.

4. Blood flow

Generally, exertion headaches are theorized to be caused by a dysregulation in the cerebrovasculature. Inferring, the blood vessels in the brain are not functioning correctly [4]. 

When we exercise, the blood vessels in our brain dilate or distend in response to increased blood flow, increasing venous congestion and intracranial pressure, leading to head pain. Some factors can influence blood flow—more on that below.

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5. Low blood sugar

Blood sugar is one of the brain’s primary sources of energy. If the body is not sufficiently fueled (aka fed) before exercising, it can lead to hypoglycemia or low blood sugar in individuals with diabetes. One of the primary symptoms of this condition is a headache. 

6. Treatment

If individuals have a headache due to fluid loss through working out, they should rehydrate by drinking water. They can also wish to try the following:

  • Increasing fluid intake throughout the day: Eating vegetables, fruits, smoothies, and soups are a great way of increasing fluids.
  • Replacing electrolytes: This can also aid the body to rehydrate. Individuals can take oral rehydration solutions, which give electrolytes to help compensate those lost through sweating.
  • Stretching: Gentle exercise, like yoga, can help to relieve muscle tension and an associated headache.
  • Relaxation techniques: Meditation, for instance, can help to release tension from your body.
  • Soaking in a warm bath: This can work to relax muscles, particularly those around the head.
  • Applying a heating pad to the shoulders and neck: This can also help to relax muscles around the head.
  • Over-the-counter pain relief medication: These can also help to soothe painful symptoms.

If a dip in blood sugar levels during workouts is causing the headache, eating a small meal or snack after exercising can help the sugar levels return to regular and treat the headache.

[Read: Types of Headaches]

7. Prevention

If individuals are experiencing headaches after exercising with no underlying condition, then the following steps can help prevent a headache from developing:

  • eating regular, small meals to help manage blood sugar levels
  • waking up and going to sleep at the same times each day
  • getting adequate sleep each night
  • warming up and cooling down thoroughly before and after workouts
  • wearing footwear that supports proper posture
  • avoiding skipping meals, particularly breakfast
  • checking form and posture is correct when working out
  • hydrating with water before, during, and after exercise
  • avoiding exercising in severe heat for lengthy periods
  • rehydrating with electrolyte drinks or oral solutions
  • exercising each day moderately, for a minimum of 30 minutes

Bottom Line

Most exercise-related headaches can be conveniently treated at home, but sometimes they could sign an underlying condition. Simple home treatment and prevention methods should help alleviate headaches. But if they aren’t doing the trick, it might be time to talk to a physician.

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