Table of Contents
- What is an Exertion Headache?
- Symptoms of an Exertion Headache
- What Causes the Headache After Exercising?
- Finding Relief
- Is a Headache After Exercise Preventable?
- Avoiding Headaches After Working Out
Why do I get headaches after working out? Called a primary exertion headache (PEH) or a physical activity headache, it is estimated that between 1-26 percent of adults experience a PEH. Most of the time, they are infrequent, benign and do not last long. However, it is important to pay attention to their regularity and intensity because in some cases they may indicate a health condition that needs attention.
What is an Exertion Headache?
As the name suggests, a primary exertion headache is a headache triggered by some type of exertion or strenuous activity. You can get a headache after working out at the gym or a headache after cardio intense activity. Some people get a headache after hiking, depending on the amount of effort involved.
Other common activities associated with exertion headaches include:
- Playing tennis
The word “primary” indicates it is a headache that is not caused by another medical condition.
Symptoms of an Exertion Headache
Exertion headaches are usually felt on each side of the head. Typical symptoms include the following.
- Feel pulse in the head when exercising
- The headache begins during or after the activity
- Pain endures for as little as five minutes but may last for up to two days
- Headache only occurs after strenuous activity
Warm days with high humidity may contribute to developing a headache after exercise.
What Causes the Headache After Exercising?
Research to date has not pinpointed the exact cause of headaches that develop after exercise. The main theory is that exercise increases the heart rate which increases the demand for oxygen in the muscles and brain. This leads to dilated blood vessels in the brain to accommodate increased circulation needs.
Muscle tension may also lead to an exercise headache. The risk of developing exercise headaches increases when you or your family has a history of migraines.
Studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between exercise as a trigger of migraine headaches. One study found that low levels of regular exercise reduced migraine frequency. The American Migraine Foundation notes that migraines and exercise headaches may have similar symptoms, but the primary exercise headache is always triggered by exertion.
Though getting a headache after working out is usually not serious, it is also important to see a doctor if they regularly occur, develop after the age of 40 or lasts longer than normal. If the exercise headache is a new development at any age, it is wise to see a doctor who can evaluate for a potential underlying cause.
Sapna clinic specialists can assess for sport and fitness injuries that might be contributing to the headaches and help you find relief.
Is a Headache After Exercise Preventable?
Since the specific reason, a headache after exercise develops is unknown, doctors can only suggest some steps to take to reduce the risk of this type of headache.
- Stay hydrated throughout the exercise period
- Eat a snack before exercising to prevent a drop in blood sugar
- Warm-up and cool down
- Avoid excessive exercising, if possible
- Avoid exercising in conditions that seem to lead to headaches after working out, like high altitudes or hot and humid weather
- Avoid exercises or activities that seem to trigger the exercise headaches
Avoiding Headaches After Working Out
Each person is different, of course, so it is important to identify your headache triggers. You want to avoid those triggers to see if the headaches stop developing. If they continue to develop with regularity and other symptoms develop, like vision problems, see a doctor right away. Some doctors advise seeing your physician if the headache occurs more than twice.
- Sandoe CH, Kingston W. Exercise Headache: a Review. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2018;18(6):28. Published 2018 Apr 19. doi:10.1007/s11910-018-0840-8.