For some people, going for a run can trigger what’s called a “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria or short-lived relaxation. But for others, running can trigger something much less pleasant: a headache.
Exercise or exertion headaches were first described by researchers in 1968. They occur during or after a period of strenuous and strenuous physical activity, such as running, sneezing, lifting heavy loads, or having sex.
Although symptoms vary from person to person, stress headaches usually involve a pulsating sensation on both sides of the head, which some describe as similar to a migraine. They can last from a few minutes to a few days. Some people may also experience multiple episodes of headaches.
But despite affecting anywhere between 1% and 26% of adults (and until 30% of teenagers), there is still little scientific data on exertional headaches.
This may be because they are not painful enough to keep people from exercising, they stop when people stop exercising, or because the symptoms overlap with those of other headaches (like migraine), which means people are treated for those instead. So in all likelihood they might be more common than you think.
But where studies with small numbers of people have been done, these headaches seem to be more common in older people. 22 For 40although they most often begin before the age of 30.
The men in these studies were also more likely to experience them, representing about 80% of the small number of patients who participate. Further research will be needed to establish more clearly whether men are more likely to have it and, if so, why.
why they come
When we exercise, blood flow to the brain increases to ensure it has enough oxygen to keep our bodies moving. But it also means an increase in the amount of CO₂ and heat our brains need to get rid of. To deal with this, our blood vessels dilate and this stretching can cause pain.
Since everyone has a different anatomy and physiology, for some people the extra demands that exercise places on their circulatory system may be enough to trigger a headache. But for others, certain conditions can cause stress headaches.
Exercising in hot weather is one example. The brain naturally works at a warmer temperature than the rest of the body, and it cannot dissipate heat through the skin through perspiration. The only way to get rid of the heat is to widen the blood vessels to increase blood flow to the brain, which helps remove some of the heat.
Since hot, humid weather already raises brain temperature, adding exercise to the mix only makes it hotter, causing our blood vessels to swell even more to cope. This may explain why some people only experience the characteristic throbbing headache when exercising on a hot day.
Training at altitude also increases the likelihood of exertional headaches. This is due to the reduced oxygen carrying capacity blood at altitude. This means more blood needs to go to the brain supply all the oxygen it needs, causing swelling and triggering pain.
People with a personal or family history of migraine migraine may also be more likely to have exertional headaches. This is probably because the same changes that cause migraines – such as changes in the size of blood vessels – are also implicated in exertional headaches.
How to prevent them
Exercise headaches will disappear soon after you stop exercising. This will usually happen within an hour or two, once your heart rate has gone down and the brain needs less oxygen.
But if your headache is too related to dehydration, this will probably take a little longer to resolve until you have replenished your fluid levels. It usually takes about three hours.
If symptoms persist or your headache is particularly painful, over-the-counter pain relievers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, may help. But if exertional headaches are a common experience for you, you might want to talk to your doctor about giving it a try. certain prescription drugs that can reduce symptoms and in some cases decrease the chances of these headaches occurring.
There are also things you can do to prevent stress headaches from happening in the first place.
It is believed that doing intense exercise after a long period of inactivity can cause exercise headaches because your cardiovascular system is not fit enough to cope with the demands.
That’s why it’s good to resume exercising gradually if you haven’t exercised for a while. It is also good to warm up gradually whenever you exercise to help your circulatory system cope with changes in blood pressure and flow.
Staying hydrated is also important. This ensures that the blood vessels in the brain can function properly. Sufficient rest will also keep the brain working at its best and help you feel less sensitive to pain.
Although exertional headaches are annoying, they shouldn’t stop you from exercising, especially in hot weather when they can be more frequent. Gradual warm-ups and avoiding hot days or altitude can help reduce the risk of them occurring. Trying other types of exercise that don’t have a maximum sustained heart rate level — such as yoga or weightlifting — may be beneficial.