Exertion Headaches: Common Causes, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment Tips

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exertion headachesHeadaches are one of those things we seemingly have very little control over. They may come without warning and, sometimes, without explanation. Take exertion headaches, for instance. These are headaches that seem to come from simply doing something active. But is that the actual cause? And what’s the quickest way to exertion headache recovery? This article will cover all of the basics of exertion headaches. We’ll discuss exertion headache symptoms, why exertion headaches feel like they can come from the back of the head, and tips on preventing the headaches from occurring in the first place. Hopefully, this guide will help you the next time you feel an exertion headache coming on.

Common Causes of Exertion Headaches

What causes exertion headaches? For the majority of us who may get an exertion headache, the primary cause is unknown. We know it has something to do with physical activity—usually strenuous activity—but we don’t know what exactly that activity is doing to cause the headaches. Even then, the headache may actually be caused by dehydration as opposed to exertion. Some illnesses like sinus infections may also cause exertion headaches.

There is a theory that the exertion may cause the blood vessels to dilate to an extent that they begin to pull on the nerves around them. This pulling would cause pain and the resulting exertion headache. Other factors such as poor nutrition, heat, and exercising at altitudes also appear to contribute to exertion headaches, but nothing seems to be consistent.

Beyond physical exertion, there is a slim chance that the exertion headache may be due to an underlying health issue like bleeding in the brain or even tumors in the brain. These are rare but always a possibility.

While the cause seems to be elusive, there are a few symptoms that can help you identify an exertion headache when it occurs.

Symptoms Associated with Exertion Headaches

Luckily, the symptoms of an exertion headache are pretty specific. Exertion headaches usually come with strenuous exercise—any activity that really gets the heart rate up. Exertion headaches tend to be throbbing and can affect both sides of the head rather than one specific point. Other symptoms can include vomiting, double vision, neck rigidity, and even a loss of consciousness.

Once you’ve taken a look at your symptoms and you can diagnose your exertion headache, the next step is to try and treat that exertion headache. There are a few ways to do that.

Treatment Tips for Exertion Headaches

There are a few things you can take to help manage an exertion headache—assuming that an exertion headache isn’t caused by a medical problem like a tumor or a brain aneurysm. If you feel that your exertion headache isn’t due to physical activity and may be a more serious medical issue, then you should see a doctor as soon as possible. But if it’s just an ordinary exertion headache, your best bet for treatment is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as aspirin or indomethacin. Indomethacin may not be the best idea if you have heart issues. If you aren’t sure about the right medication to take, talk to your doctor regarding any issues you may have.

Of course, one of the best ways to “treat” an exertion headache is to prevent it before it occurs.

Prevention Tips for Exertion Headaches

The best way to deal with exertion headaches is to stop them before they occur. That may be easier said than done, but there are some steps that you can take to try and avoid them. Check out the following prevention methods:

Take a pain killer before your activity

If you get exertion headaches, you may want to take an anti-inflammatory drug before your workout or sport. We tend to take medications after the problem occurs, but taking them before an intense activity may help stave off the problem or at least some of the symptoms.

1. Warm up

Before you exercise or commence your physical activity, warm up. This is not only good for your muscles, but it also may allow your head to get used to the activity so a headache is less likely to occur.

2. If it hurts, don’t do it

Some people with reoccurring exertion headaches find that it happens during certain activities. If that’s the case, you may want to avoid doing that activity until the headache issue can be resolved.

3. Avoid exercising at high altitudes

There is some evidence that physical exertion at higher altitudes may cause exertion headaches in certain individuals.

4. Stay hydrated

Headaches caused by dehydration can often be confused with exertion headaches, it’s good to keep hydrated as it can help rule out a dehydration headache as the cause of your pain.

The tips above may help prevent exertion headaches, but don’t let exertion headaches prevent you from doing sports and activities you enjoy.

Don’t Let Exertion Headaches Stop You!

Exertion headaches aren’t fun and, unfortunately, they can often occur if you’ve been doing something fun. Hopefully, with the prevention and treatment tips you’ve learned here, you won’t be kept out of the game long. And remember, if you have any concerns that your headache may actually be the response to a medical problem, do not hesitate to contact a doctor.


Sources:
Brophy, K., “Exertion Headache? Consider the Causes and Try These Treatments,” University Health News, March 10, 2017, http://universityhealthnews.com/daily/pain/exertion-headache/, last accessed April 4, 2017.
“Exertion Headaches,” Migraine.com, https://migraine.com/headache-types/exertion-headaches/, last accessed April 4, 2017.
“Exercising Headaches,” Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/exercise-headaches/basics/definition/con-20025221, last accessed April 4, 2017.
“Exertional Headaches,” Headache MD, https://headachemd.net/types-of-headaches/exertional-headaches/, last accessed April 4, 2017.




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Up until the end of 2016, Brent Chittenden had been a freelance researcher and writer, writing about everything from entertainment—including pro wrestling and stand-up comedy—to health and nutrition, to culture and lifestyle. In 2017, he joined the Doctors Health Press full time and couldn’t be happier about it. With a graduate certificate in Radio and Broadcasting, Brent brings extensive experience as a communicator and researcher, adding to the many talented health authorities and professionals on whose expertise Doctors Health Press... Read Full Bio »