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5 Common Causes of Headaches During or After Workouts


by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

Exercise is great for your health, and it is said that a person should do at least half an hour of exercise a day (around 150 minutes per week). But what if working out leads you to a painful headache? What would be the causes of headaches during or after workouts?

Don’t worry, as it is not the fault of your workout but actually a byproduct of exercise that affects your body.

All I’m saying is that the causes of headaches during exercise or even post-workout it not all that uncommon. You might feel pain on one side of your head or (in a more severe case) a throbbing pain throughout your head that is more of a nuisance than anything else. There can be many reasons behind this, and in most cases, it is something simple that you can take care of quite easily.

In this article, we are going to learn about the common causes of headaches during or after workouts.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before starting an exercise or nutrition program.

5 Causes of Headaches During or After Workouts

A headache during or after a workout can be distressing and make you want to stop working out. But that would be a bad decision for many reasons.

Below are the five most common causes of headaches during or after workouts.

1.   Exertional Headache

Exercising too hard or not giving your body enough time to recover after a workout can be one of the causes of headaches. This type of headache is known as exertional headache and can be brought on when you’re doing any sort of physical activity, including running, cycling, weightlifting, or playing sports like tennis.

Exertional headaches can be of two types — primary or secondary.

Primary exertional headaches happen for unknown causes. But experts believe it could be linked to the possible narrowing of your blood vessels when you are working out.

Secondary exertional headaches are similarly triggered during physical activity, but this response happens because of an underlying condition. This condition could range from a simple sinus infection to something more serious, like a tumor.

The pain may start as soon as you begin exercising or become more noticeable during the middle of your workout. The pain usually disappears within minutes or hours after exercise has stopped.

Most people don’t need medical treatment for exertional headaches unless they give off secondary symptoms such as vomiting, congestion, neck stiffness, and vision problems.

2.   Dehydration

Dehydration is one of the common causes of headaches during or after workouts. It occurs when you lose more fluid than you take in, which can lead to dizziness, fainting, and nausea.

If you’re exercising outside on a hot day or sweating excessively while exercising indoors, it’s important to stay properly hydrated by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after your training session.

If you’re not sure if you’re getting enough fluids, there are a few signs that dehydration may be the culprit for your headaches:

  • Dry mouth or dry skin
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Less urination than usual

3.   Tension Headache

A tension headache is caused by muscle tightness in your neck and shoulders. It may also be referred to as a “stress headache” because it’s commonly linked with stress and strain. If you have a tension headache, your muscles become tense and tight due to stress or overuse. The pain is usually mild to moderate, but it can last for several hours or even days at a time.

Symptoms of tension headache are:

  • a gradual start to the headache
  • mild to moderate pain
  • pain that often affects both sides of the head
  • pain in the neck and back of the head
  • constant pain rather than throbbing
  • pain that can be either a vice-like band around the head or a dull ache

4.   Low Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) occurs when your body doesn’t have enough glucose (sugar) circulating in the bloodstream. If this happens during exercise, it can trigger a headache.

To prevent low blood sugar during exercise, make sure you eat enough carbohydrates before working out so that your body has fuel available throughout your workout. Also, avoid sugary foods just before working out — these can cause an insulin surge that leads to low blood sugar shortly afterward.

Here are the symptoms of low blood sugar:

  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Fainting
  • Hunger
  • Instant sweating
  • Shivering

5.   Exercising in Heat

Exercising in a hot environment can cause headaches. The best way to avoid them is to drink plenty of water before, during, and after exercise, according to the American Council on Exercise.

If you have an existing headache from dehydration or other factors, you may be more likely to get a headache when exercising in the heat.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can both be causes of headaches as well as fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. If you experience any of these symptoms while exercising in the heat, stop exerting and seek medical attention.

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