How You Can Stop Headaches From Derailing Your Workouts

Know when you should see your doctor
How You Can Stop Headaches From Derailing Your Workouts

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.

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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:

  • Dehydration
  • Change of altitude
  • History of migraines
  • Hot, humid weather

Q: How can you avoid exercise-induced headaches?

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

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“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:

  • If bright sunlight or hot, humid conditions cause headaches, wear sunglasses and lightweight clothes that wick moisture away from your body. Or exercise when temperatures are cooler.
  • If certain exercises seem to cause headaches, consider mixing up your workout routine. Dr. Mays often recommends including yoga and Pilates in the mix.

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.

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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:

  • A severe, sudden-onset headache, commonly known as a “thunderclap” headache
  • A headache accompanied by sleepiness, confusion or fainting
  • A headache that lasts more than two days

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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