Imagine this:

You’re halfway through a grueling workout, pushing yourself to the limit as your muscles yearn for a break, and yet you keep going, until it happens.

Suddenly, a sharp pang tears through your head. Ignoring it at first, you power through with a grimace on your face, until the pain grows.

You have no choice but to stop, taking a seat to catch your breath and clutch your head as the ache pulses without mercy. 

What’s happening to you?

The answer is that you’re suffering the effects of physical exertion. Namely, an exertion headache.

While they’re not as common as a normal headache, they come with a host of problems, which can quickly derail more than your latest session at the gym.

Why Do Physical Exertion Headaches Happen?

This head pain is triggered when you push yourself too hard through exercise. Whenever we sweat profusely and work our bodies intensely, the pressure in the blood vessels in our brains increases.

It could happen in the gym or on the sports field, in training or in competition, from tennis courts to basketball games and everything in between. However, research from the American Migraine Foundation ascertains that people who are doing the most strenuous activities such as weightlifting, biking, or running are especially susceptible.

Although medical professionals know more about stress headaches and migraines, the effects of a physical exertion headache are well-understood.

That’s good news for anybody who suffers one, as it’s important to manage it correctly if the time comes.

The Threat of Physical Exertion

This type of headache can last a few minutes, or they can stick with you for a couple of days, making life miserable long after you’ve hung up your training gear.

Typically, they strike younger people who are more active, making adolescents and people in their 20s and 30s especially prone to attacks.

In most cases, the symptoms are similar to a migraine, with feelings of nausea and even vomiting not uncommon. Sufferers can also feel sensitivity to light and sound.

If this is your first physical exertion headache, there may be little to worry about. However, getting it checked out is always smart, just in case there is an underlying condition.

How to Control Physical Exertion Headaches

So, what can we do to stop the pain? Or better yet, prevent it from happening at all?

It may become excruciating, and at its height, a headache caused by physical exertion is particularly unpleasant.

Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to relieve the pain.

Take a Timeout

An exertion headache is a warning. Your body is letting you know you’re going too hard. Just like an old car that starts shaking and rattling if it’s been driven too fast, it’s best you slow down before disaster strikes.

If a headache rises up, stop completely. Sit down for a break and see if it goes away. If it does, slowly get back into things. Just make sure to warm up again first.

On that note, make sure to warm up properly before any exercise. This will bring your heart rate up gradually, preparing your body for intense activity. This alone is a good way to prevent against headaches.

Identify Your Triggers

Just like migraines, exertion headaches have triggers. It may be an issue with your blood pressure, or perhaps your diet isn’t as healthy as it could be. Too much caffeine or alcohol are common triggers.

Another consideration is the climate. If you exercise in hot, humid areas, you run the risk of becoming dehydrated faster than usual.

Be vigilant with your lifestyle choices, from water consumption to your diet to your sleep patterns. In the end, you’ll be better prepared for physical activity.

Improve Your Form

Sometimes, a headache can be triggered because of minor mistakes in your workout. While it may seem insignificant, the position of your head during weightlifting, and even running, can be a big factor. Correcting your posture will improve the blood flow, and also reduce muscle tension.

Try Pain Meds

Over-the-counter medicine can work wonders, offering fast pain relief when you need it most. Common options like Tylenol or Advil are a good choice. If you’re particularly susceptible to headaches during exercise, try taking naproxen about 30-60 minutes prior to your workout.

Don’t Avoid Your Doctor

If physical exertion headaches become a regular feature in your life, then it’s wise to do more than take a few Advil. Throbbing head pain and the more severe symptoms like visual impairment and light sensitivity are not to be taken lightly.

Check with your doctor to make sure the headaches aren’t a sign of a more serious underlying condition. With their advice and some effort to identify and manage your triggers, you can continue to enjoy sports and training without the fear or pain of headaches.

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