The sudden onset of a serious headache during exercise can be debilitating. Even though it may seem like you’re experiencing a migraine, other workout-related factors might actually be the root cause. According to the National Headache Foundation, more than 37 million Americans suffer from migraines. Exercise-induced headaches are a little bit different and less common than you think. Here’s how one expert answers commonly asked questions about the connection between migraines, headaches, and exercise in general.
What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
There are two core categories of headaches, based on a classification guide published by the International Headache Society: primary and secondary. Primary headaches are often related to tension or exertion but can involve traditional migraines. Secondary headaches tend to be much more serious and may require immediate medical attention.
“Many of us have experienced a headache at some point during our life, and can recognize the signs and symptoms with ease,” explains Dr. Bradley J. Katz, professor of ophthalmology and neurology at University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics. “But, a migraine is not just a bad headache. It is a debilitating, neurological illness that affects about 12 percent of the world population.”
In general, headaches can cause pain and minor annoyance on one or both sides of the head, whereas migraines may include additional symptoms, such as nausea, fatigue, blurred vision, vomiting, and both light and sound sensitivity, says Dr. Katz. He adds that some people experience an “aura” as well, which is a visual sensation lasting a few minutes or an hour.
Can exercise actually cause a migraine?
Possibly, says Dr. Katz, but exercise affects people with migraines differently—it may alleviate symptoms, or it could make an existing migraine worse.
Exercise headaches are usually associated with contact sports, as well as high-intensity workouts such as running, cycling, or strength training. However, being more susceptible to headaches or migraines in those situations doesn’t mean that exercise actually causes them to happen. For example, a 2011 study tested the impact of exercise, relaxation methods, and medication on migraine sufferers. The study found no significant difference between the three groups.
There’s also an overlap between certain symptoms of migraines and some side effects of working out, notes Dr. Katz, which can cause confusion. “Because some people experience fatigue or lightheadedness from working out, which are also symptoms of a migraine, they may feel as though that contributes to triggering their migraine attacks,” he states. “An Exercise-induced migraine is very rare and the trigger may, in fact, be something else or a combination of things.”
Can you prevent exercise-related headaches or migraines?
There is some evidence that exercise-related headaches or migraines can be prevented with simple, straightforward habits. Stay hydrated, add a warm-up and cool down to your exercise routine, nourish your body with healthy foods, and get plenty of sleep.
“Dehydration is a well-known cause of migraines, so if you have migraines, be extra careful to stay hydrated when exercising,” advises Dr. Katz. ”Keep a journal to see if your exercise is a trigger for your migraine, and if you find that it is, consider getting advice from your physician or physical therapist. They may be able to help you design an exercise program that keeps you healthy without worsening your headaches.”
For any unusual or lingering headaches, especially ones that seem severe or become progressively worse, be sure to get checked out by a doctor. Also, make an appointment if you experience an exercise-related head trauma or neck pain from a full-contact sport. Both those situations could indicate serious injury or complication.