Exertion Headaches

xertion headaches

When you exercise or exert yourself physically, the head, neck, and scalp muscles need more blood to circulate. This causes the blood vessels to dilate, which can lead to a condition called exertional headaches. In addition, if you don’t properly hydrate while exercising can add to your exertion headache. 


There are two types of exercise headaches, according to doctors. Primary exercise headaches are usually harmless, not connected to any underlying problems, and can often be prevented with medication. That being said, a secondary exercise headache results from an ongoing, serious problem within the brain — such as bleeding or a tumor — or outside the brain — such as coronary artery disease. These types of headaches may require emergency medical attention.



exertion headaches from strenuous exercise

Activities that result in physical exertion can induce headaches. The types of activity that cause them to vary from person to person but include:

  • strenuous exercise
  • coughing
  • sexual activity
  • Sports such as:
    • Rowing
    • Tennis
    • Swimming
    • Weightlifting

Exertion headaches can affect people of any age. People over the age of 40 are at higher risk.  Exercising with sustained intensity can cause exertion headaches as well.

Reasons Why You Get a Headache After Exercising

EXERTIONAL HEADACHE: The pulsating pain that people often experience when exercising can be attributed to exertional headaches. You may feel pain for a few minutes to a few days. A headache like this only occurs when exercising. People who work out in hot weather or at high altitudes are more likely to develop primary exercise headaches. 

DEHYDRATION: Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluid than it takes in. Chances are, you sweat when you exercise and results in fluid loss. If you don’t drink enough water before exercising, you become dehydrated.  The first sign of dehydration is a headache.

TOO MUCH SUN EXPOSURE: Sun exposure can trigger headaches in many people, even when they aren’t exercising. Hot weather contributes to this.

LOW BLOOD SUGAR: Low blood sugar, also called hypoglycemia, can cause a headache after exercising. Blood sugar refers to glucose, which is one of your body’s main energy sources. Without enough food before exercise, your body can suffer from hypoglycemia, which means your blood sugar levels are low.

FORM IS OFF: When you exercise with poor form, you may experience muscle tension, leading to headaches, especially if you use your neck and shoulders. Weight lifting, pushups, crunches, and running can all lead to tension in your neck if improperly done.

How Are Exertion Headaches Diagnosed?

miami ct scan for exertion headaches

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, doctors could use imaging tests to check for an underlying issue. Such tests are:

  1. CT scan to check for recent bleeding in or around the brain
  2. MRI scan to view the structures within your brain
  3. magnetic resonance angiography and CT angiography to see the blood vessels leading into your brain
  4. spinal tap to measure the flow of cerebrospinal fluid

Treatment For Exertion Headaches

  • Increasing fluid intake throughout the day: Fruits, vegetables, smoothies, and soups are all excellent ways to increase fluid intake.
  • Replacing electrolytes: This can also help the body to rehydrate. Those who sweat excessively can replace their electrolytes by taking oral rehydration solutions.
  • Stretching: Exercising gently, such as with yoga, can relieve muscle tension and the headache it can cause.
  • Relaxation techniques: Meditation, for example, may help to release tension from the body.
  • Soaking in a warm bath: Useful for relaxing the muscles, especially the ones around the head.
  • Applying a heating pad to the neck and shoulders may also help relax muscles around the head.
  • Over-the-counter pain relief medication: Helps relieve painful symptoms.
  • If a drop in blood sugar levels during exercise is causing the headache, eating a snack or small meal after exercising may help the sugar levels return to normal and treat the headache.


Naproxen or Indomethacin is taken 30-60 minutes before exercise, which may prevent primary exercise headaches. However, with indomethacin and naproxen, treatment should be monitored to avoid stomach irritation. Beta-blockers such as nadolol and propranolol have also been reported to prevent primary exercise headaches effectively and are reasonable options for people who cannot take naproxen or indomethacin.



The body can become stiff and ache after a strenuous workout or infrequent activity. Muscle tension can cause headaches and could be helpful to stretch before and after exercising.


Sometimes, headaches after exercising are due to an underlying condition. People experiencing exercise-induced headaches or have cardiovascular issues should see a doctor if they have no apparent reason for experiencing headaches.








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