Exercise headaches are headaches that normally occur during or after strenuous exercise. Activities that may cause exercise headaches include swimming, rowing, running, tennis and weight lifting.
Exercise headaches are divided into two main categories i.e. primary headaches and secondary headaches.
Primary exercise headaches are generally harmful and are not linked to any underlying conditions. Primary headaches can effectively be prevented with the use of medications.
Secondary exercise headaches, however, are normally caused due to an underlying problem, which often tends to be seriously and related to the brain such as bleeding or tumor. Problems outside the brain include coronary artier disease. Secondary exercise headaches are severe conditions that require emergency medical care.
The information posted on this page on treatment, recognition and management of headaches is for learning purposes only. To learn to recognize and manage severe head, neck and spinal injuries sign up for a first aid course with one of our training providers.
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms for primary exercise headaches may include:
- Throbbing pain
- Occurs after strenuous exercise
- Can affected both sides of the head
Signs and symptoms for secondary exercise headaches may include:
- Throbbing pain
- Pain takes place after exercise
- Pain may affect both sides of the brain
- Double vision
- Neck rigidity
- Loss of consciousness
Primary exercise headaches often last for about five minutes to 48 hours. Secondary exercise headaches may last for a day or persist for several days.
When to seek medical help
If you have a headache while exercising or right after exercise, see your doctor. See your doctor immediately if you experience a sudden headache or if you experience such as headache for the first time.
In case of a primary exercise headache, the exact cause of the problem is still not known. However, a theory exists that pain may occur because vigorous exercise may cause the blood vessels in the skull to dilate.
As for secondary exercise headaches, the condition may be caused due to an underlying problem like:
- Any abnormality in the blood vessel leading to the brain or within the brain
- Bleeding between the thin membranes that coat the brain and the brain
- Presence of cancerous or noncancerous tumors
- Obstruction associated with the flow of cerebrospinal fluid
- Sinus infection
- Reduction in blood flow in the arteries to the heart
It is important that you see a doctor as soon as possible if you experience a headache while exercising or after exercising because it may be linked to an underlying condition.
If the doctor determines that your headache is not caused due to a structural or vascular condition, your doctor may recommend or prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and blood pressure medication to prevent exercise headaches.
If you know when or how your exercise headaches may occur, it will be helpful to take medication one to two hours before the event – such as a hike or a tennis match. Medications prescribed by your doctor may be those used to control acute migraine headaches.
If exercise headaches are unpredictable or frequent, you may have to take medication on a daily basis.
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Primary exercise headaches typically last between five minutes and 48 hours, while secondary exercise headaches usually last at least a day and sometimes linger for several days or longer.