Let's set the scene: You're at the gym in the middle of an intense workout—or you just finished one—and all of a sudden, you get a major headache out of nowhere. One part of you says you should ignore it and keep powering through. But the pain is stubborn and doesn't relent. What's going on?
Causes of Headaches After Exercise
Strenuous exercises like running can cause exertional headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.
Though exertional headaches aren’t as common as migraines or stress headaches, they can be painful, lasting from five minutes to 48 hours, and are often described as bilateral (on both sides of the head), pulsating pain.
These headaches would be considered “primary exertion headaches” or primary exercise headaches if they’re not caused by another health condition or disorder, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF).
The National Headache Foundation says that most of the time, there is no serious underlying cause of exertional headaches but advises anyone who gets headaches following exertion to get checked out by a healthcare provider. According to the AMF, exertional headaches can be associated with a variety of medical problems, including brain tumors, brain aneurysms, subarachnoid hemorrhage, heart disease, and more.
If you experience headaches triggered by exercise and don't have an underlying health problem, here's what medical experts said you should do if you develop one of these skull-throbbers—and how to keep them from coming back.
Stop and Cool Down
“Exercising in hot, humid conditions or at high altitudes when your body isn’t acclimated yet,” can bring on exertion headaches, Clifford Stark, DO, sports medicine specialist in New York City, told Health. So an exertion headache is your body’s way of telling you it’s being overexerted, and if one strikes, it’s time to take a break, said Dr. Stark.
If the headache goes away, you can try getting back into your workout—but warm up first. Warming up before any type of exercise, strenuous or not, gradually increases your heart rate and gets your blood flowing to prepare your body for activity, which can also prevent exertion headaches.
Stay well-hydrated, eat regularly, and get enough sleep to see if those changes keep the post-exercise head pain at bay, Erin Manning, MD, assistant attending neurologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, told Health.
“Sometimes over-the-counter medications like Advil, naproxen, or Tylenol can be helpful for people,” said Dr. Manning. The AMF suggests taking naproxen or indomethacin (which is available by prescription) 30 to 60 minutes before you plan to hit the gym.
Be sure to fill your doctor in on any OTC meds that you take.
Dr. Manning added that some people would need prescription medication that they take either right before strenuous exercise or on a daily basis to help prevent the headaches from happening if OTC meds don't work for them.
When To See Your Healthcare Provider
"Anytime you have a severe headache that feels like the worst headache of your life, or something that came on very suddenly, or it causes other symptoms beyond the headache that you're not used to, like visual symptoms, you need medical attention right away because it could be something serious," said Dr. Stark. Even if the head pain isn't quite that bad, see a healthcare provider. Patients with new or never-evaluated exercise headache should have an evaluation.
"I would say if this has happened more than a couple of times, then it's probably a good time to see a healthcare provider," advised Dr. Manning. "You can start with your primary care provider or see if you can find a neurologist, headache specialist, or someone who specializes in sports neurology," Dr. Manning said.