First of all, you’re not imagining it: Exercise headaches are a real thing. Also known as exertion headaches, they're typically caused by “abnormal rapid expansion of the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your head," says Elroy Vojdani, MD, IFMCP, and founder of Regenera Medical. The rapid increase in blood flow that happens during a workout, he says, can make the arteries throb and can actually trigger a headache after exercise, he says.
Exercise headaches don't happen to everyone, Dr. Vojdani says, and it's unclear why some people are affected by the increase in blood flow differently than others. “It's theorized that for some [the widening of arteries] doesn’t happen to the full extent that is needed, which leads to a buildup of pressure—think putting your finger on the end of a hose—thus triggering pain centers in the brain,” he says.
What exactly is causing my exercise headaches?
Everyone reacts differently to certain activities and again, headaches after exercise aren't a thing for everyone. But some workouts are more notoriously headache-inducing than others, like weight lifting, distance running, or other aerobic activity, says Nicole Schultz, PhD, MPH, director of training at EverybodyFights. “Intensity of exercise has been shown to be a factor that influences exercise headaches, with more vigorous activities potentially leading to dilation of blood vessels that trigger nerve responses and pain messages to the brain,” she says. So basically, you’re less likely to get a headache after using two-pound dumbbells in barre class than you are after running your first half-marathon.
Another factor: Improperly warming up before working out. Dr. Vojdani explains that we need to increase our blood flow to our brain and muscles to perform exercise (to provide them with enough oxygen and energy to get the job done). Warming up before working out helps gently widen the blood vessels, preparing them for more blood to flow through them and thus reducing the risk of a headache.
Extreme heat can also trigger a headache, adds Schultz. She says higher temps promote a cooling response in the body and facilitate sweating, which leads to dehydration, and then puts you at risk for a headache. (So that's why I felt like garbage after hot yoga...)
Okay, so how should I treat a headache after exercise?
Given that exercise is extremely good for your bod (duh), you shouldn't just skip your favorite HIIT workout because you're scared of a headache. Nor should you just resign yourself to a life of post-exercise misery.
When you feel one coming on,“cool down immediately,” says Dr. Vojdani. “Drink tons of water and have a banana or a few dates to give yourself some sugar and electrolytes. Rest and take it easy until the headache subsides.” And treat it as you would a normal headache: OTC painkillers are fine, as are a few drops of peppermint essential oil on your temples.
Schultz says exercise headaches are typically benign. But if you're experiencing loss of vision, double vision, loss of consciousness, feeling faint, nausea, vomiting, fever, or neck stiffness with your headaches, Dr. Vojdani says to seek medical attention stat. And while exercise headaches can crop up 24 hours after your workout, see a doctor if they last 24 hours.
How do I prevent them from coming back?
If you're prone to exercise headaches, Schultz says it’s important to implement preventative lifestyle habits like getting adequate and consistent sleep; drinking eight glasses of water a day (and extra water during your workout); eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day; and avoiding excessive caffeine, alcohol and food additives, which are common in processed packaged foods.
Dr. Vojdani adds that you want to warm up for at least 10 to 15 minutes before you exercise to give your blood vessels a chance to acclimate to the rest of your body. He also suggests timing your workout so that you hit your peak intensity during the second half of training to make that your blood vessels are fully widened by the time you're going hard, and thus can accommodate the increased blood flow without triggering a headache.
If exercise headaches only became a thing for you recently (say you just started working out again), they're often just a temporary thing. “Your blood vessels are surrounded by a thin layer of muscle, meaning that they need to be trained just as any other muscle in your body,” says Dr. Vojdani. Keep attending those dance party cardio classes with your friends to give yourself a chance to adapt to these changes. Your bod (and head!) will thank you for it.
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