Exercise Headaches

What are Exercise Headaches?

Exercise headaches can happen either during or after you’ve experienced a strenuous activity or you’ve completed a difficult exercise session.

Activities that are often associated with this type of headache include weightlifting, tennis, rowing, swimming, and running.

Put simply, the effort involved with physical exertion, including when exercising, causes the muscles within the scalp, neck, and head to require additional blood. The blood vessels dilate as a result, and that leads to an exercise headache.

What are the Symptoms of Exercise Headaches?

Symptoms will depend upon whether an exercise headache is a primary headache (not dangerous or connected to an underlying disorder) or a secondary headache (caused by an underlying, serious condition).

Symptoms include

A primary exercise headache can be described as a throbbing headache, and it can happen either during or after exercise. It can also affect both sides of the head. These headaches will usually last anywhere from 5 minutes to 48 hours.

Secondary exercise headaches could cause the same signs as primary headaches, but they might also cause loss of consciousness, neck rigidity, double vision, and vomiting. The duration of these headaches is at least one day, though they can also go on for several days.

Exercise Headaches Causes

As the name indicates, exercise headaches (or exertion headaches) are often brought on by physical exercise of a heavy amount of physical exertion. However, that does not necessarily mean that the exercise was the root cause of the condition.

There are two main categories, of differing severity. Primary exercise headaches are unconnected to an underlying condition and are usually treated with the same medication as any other headache. Contributing conditions that may contribute to these headaches may include exercise at high altitudes, stress/tension, dehydration and lack of sleep.

Secondary exercise headaches, however, can be caused by serious neurological problems, bleeding in the brain, brain tumors and circulatory system problems such as heart disease. Secondary headaches may be of sufficient severity to warrant emergency medical attention.

How are Exercise Headaches Treated?

Most exercise headaches are harmless and will respond to over-the-counter remedies. However, if you’re experiencing new exercise headaches, don’t assume that they’re benign. Instead, talk to your doctor, who can rule out serious causes.

If it is found that you are suffering from exercise headaches, you can try Indocin, which is a prescription anti-inflammatory medication that can be taken 30-60 minutes prior to exercising. Other helpful medications include naproxen, ergonovine, and phenelzine. Blood pressure medications can also be taken to prevent these headaches.

Exercise Headaches Prevention

Primary exercise headaches can be prevented by taking care in when and where exercise is performed. Avoiding environments where the weather is hot or humid or outdoors at high altitudes can help prevent the onset of these headaches. It is also very important to get enough sleep and be adequately hydrated before the performance of any strenuous physical activity.

Some afflicted with this condition only experience it when performing a specific physical exercise, and if this is the case that particular exercise should be avoided in favor of alternative activities. Warm ups prior to exercise have also been found to reduce the chance of exercise headaches.

For more serious secondary exercise headaches there may be no such easy answers. Stronger medication than the over the counter treatment of primary headaches may be available depending on the condition that is causing the headaches, but emergency medical treatment, including invasive surgery, may be the only option for more serious conditions, such as brain bleeding or tumors.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 20, 2017