How You Can Stop Headaches From Derailing Your Workouts

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You’re in the middle of a vigorous run or tennis match and enjoying the rhythm of your body’s movement, when unwelcome head pain hits you. An exercise-induced headache can throw you off your game for days, causing physical discomfort and emotional anxiety.

But you don’t have to let a headache derail your fitness goals. Here’s what you need to know about exercise-induced headaches.

Q: What causes headaches when you’re working out?

A: When you exert yourself, the muscles of the head, neck and scalp need more blood circulating. There is a an increase in blood volume in the blood vessels and this can lead to an exertional headache, or exercise-induced headache. If you often engage in strenuous, prolonged activity, you’re more likely to get these headaches.

“It typically occurs at the peak of a high-impact activity, such as running, aerobics, swimming and tennis,” says headache specialist MaryAnn Mays, MD.

Lifting weights can also lead to “weightlifter’s headache,” she says.

Other triggers for an exercise-induced headache include:

Q: How can you avoid exercise-induced headaches?

A: First, do whatever you can to prevent a headache, starting with hydration.

“People like to work out in the morning and often don’t eat or drink beforehand,” Dr. Mays says. Instead, it’s a good idea to drink water before and during your workouts.

You can take action to counteract other headache triggers as well:

Q: How can you treat these headaches?

A: For some, an occasional workout leads to a brief headache and it doesn’t really impact daily activities. Others, however, get a headache every time they exercise and it may linger all day — and even into the next day.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can help ease your occasional headache pain. But these drugs are only intended for short-term use.

Overuse can actually make your headache worse and cause you to “rebound” into another headache, Dr. Mays says.

If you have chronic headaches but want to maintain a near-daily exercise regimen, a doctor can prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug that you can take daily (indomethacin, for instance), she says.

Q: When is a headache cause for concern?

A: In general, it’s a good idea for anyone who has exercise-induced headaches to consult a doctor, Dr. Mays says. The doctor may help by recommending preventive measures and medications to ease the pain.

For instance, if your headache is more one-sided and located in the neck (a cervicogenic headache), a physical therapist or personal trainer often can help alleviate the pain, she says.

More specifically, “if you are over the age of 40 and start getting headaches, see a doctor,” Dr. Mays says.

Other red flags that should prompt you to seek medical attention include:

We all know that we need to exercise regularly to stay healthy, so don’t let headaches stand in the way. Take steps to prevent an exercise-induced headache and talk to your doctor if you see any signs of a more serious problem.

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