Why you're getting headaches after exercise

Why you're getting headaches after exercise


Headaches are common when we’re stressed, tired, dehydrated or even hungover! But did you know that exercise and exertion can cause headaches, too?
Not only are exercise headaches annoying to deal with, but they can be off putting. After all, exercise is supposed to be rewarding and make you feel good, not punish you with a pounding head! 
In this guide we’ll discuss why exertion headaches occur and what you can do to prevent them. Exercise is an essential part of staying fit and healthy, so don’t let headaches stand in the way of your lifestyle.


What causes headaches?

The pain associated with headaches is caused by the nerves in the muscles and blood vessels that surround your head, and in extension, your neck and face. These nerves spring into action when you experience a headache trigger, such as:

  • Cold or flu
  • Stress
  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Poor posture
  • Eyesight problems
  • Staring at screens for long periods
  • Not eating regular meals
  • Dehydration 
  • Taking too many painkillers
  • Having your period or during menopause

There are two types of headaches: primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches aren’t a sign of an underlying disease or cause. Instead, they’re induced by the brain’s chemical activity and the nerves and blood vessels surrounding your head, face and neck. Tension headaches and migraines are a type of primary headache. 
Whereas dehydration and hangover headaches would be secondary headaches as they’re caused by not drinking enough fluids and drinking too much alcohol, respectively. 
Despite exercise headaches being caused by physical exertion, they’re generally considered to be a type of primary headache, but sometimes they’re considered secondary, too. Keep reading below to find out more about exercise induced headaches.


Can exercise cause headaches?

Yes, exercise can cause headaches, especially strenuous exercise in hot, humid conditions and at high altitudes. The risk factor is also higher if you have a family history of migraines. Certain activities are commonly associated with these headaches, like: running, rowing, tennis, swimming and weightlifting. 
The cause of primary exercise headaches isn’t fully understood, but it’s suggested that intense physical activity dilates the blood vessels inside of the skull, resulting in pain.
Whereas secondary exercise headaches are caused by an underlying, sometimes serious issue in or outside the brain, like bleeding, a tumour or coronary artery disease. These secondary exercise headaches often need emergency medical attention.


What are the symptoms of exercise headaches?

There are many different types of headaches, from tension headaches to migraines, with each presenting differing symptoms. It’s the case with exercise headaches, too, with the primary and secondary headaches having symptoms that vary in severity.
Primary exertion headaches are typically described as a throbbing pain that affects both sides of the head, and begin during or after strenuous exercise. Compared to secondary headaches that can cause vomiting, loss of consciousness, double vision and neck stiffness, in addition to the same throbbing, headache pain.
Just as the symptoms differ, the period of time that exercise headaches last is also different! While primary exercise headaches can last from 5 minutes to 48 hours, secondary headaches usually last for a day and can even linger for longer. 

How to prevent headaches after exercise

As these headaches occur more frequently when the weather’s hot or humid and the altitude is high, it may be helpful to avoid exercising during these conditions, or choosing lighter exercise compared to strenuous exercise. Warming up before exercising can slowly introduce your body to the activity and drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated may help to prevent an exercise headache from forming.

Not only can headaches impact your daily life and quality of sleep, but if you’re constantly getting headaches after exercising, it can make you want to pack-in the gym altogether!
Don’t worry! You can prevent exercise headaches by exercising during cool weather, warming up beforehand, drinking plenty of water, and choosing a lighter activity over something more strenuous.
However, if you’re worried about your exercise headaches and they last for prolonged periods of time, it’s best to get checked out by your GP. If you need further information about exercise or exertion headaches, visit the NHS website.


Alexandra Moses - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 14 March 2023
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