Can a Workout Give You a Headache?

If you’ve ever gotten a headache from working out, you’re not alone. Here’s what might be causing your pain and what you can do to alleviate it.


Exercising regularly is an important part of staying healthy, but are exercise-induced headaches a barrier for some? There’s no one definitive answer, as both physical and psychological factors can lead to the onset of a headache during or after a workout. Understanding more about the potential causes, symptoms and possible treatments for exercise-induced headaches can help people determine when it’s safe to continue exercising and when it’s time to seek medical attention.

Causes of Exercise-Induced Headaches

Exercise-induced headaches can be experienced just after physical activity or up to 48 hours later. Intense activity such as running, weight lifting, or team sports can lead to exercise-induced headaches. These headaches can be painful and debilitating, so it’s important to understand the causes and proper preventative measures. Let’s take a deeper look at the causes of exercise-induced headaches.


Excessive physical activity can lead to simple dehydration. This is a common cause of headaches associated with exercise. Sweating during exercise not only lowers the body temperature but also reduces water levels in the body. The resulting headache could be a dull, throbbing sensation or a sharp, stabbing headache. Severe dehydration can sometimes result in muscle cramps, nausea and dizziness, as well as headaches. It is always best to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise to avoid dehydration and its associated symptoms, such as headaches.

Low Blood Sugar

One of the most common causes of exercise-induced headaches is low blood sugar. Exercise can significantly lower blood sugar levels and create a sensation of hunger. This feeling can bring on an exercise headache, especially during or after strenuous or prolonged physical exertion, like running or playing sports. If you experience a headache while exercising, try having a snack with carbohydrates and proteins before continuing with your workout. Having something to eat can help to raise your blood sugar levels and prevent the onset of a headache. Sports drinks and energy gels that contain simple carbohydrates like glucose are also recommended if you experience symptoms of low blood sugar while exercising.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a common cause of exercise-induced headaches. When blood pressure rises during physical activity, it can cause the skull’s arteries to expand and irritate the tissues surrounding them. This can lead to a feeling of tightness in the head and face as well as a dull headache. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk for developing high blood pressure, it is important to discuss this with your health care provider before starting an exercise program.

Other possible causes of exercise-related headaches include dehydration, overexertion and inadequate rest between workouts. Staying properly hydrated before and during your workout will help avoid dehydration-related headaches. Limiting the intensity of your workouts and taking appropriate rest days between sessions may also help prevent headaches from overexertion. Increasing breathing rate and heart rate gradually makes it easier for your body to adapt and can also be helpful in avoiding headache-causing fatigue. Finally, if you experience a severe headache after an activity that does not relieve within two hours after stopping activity it is recommended that you seek medical attention immediately as this could be a sign of a more serious condition such as meningitis or stroke


Caffeine is a known trigger for exercise-induced headaches, so it’s recommended that those prone to them should limit caffeine intake prior to exercising. Caffeine is found in abundance in coffee, tea and some energy drinks, as well as dark chocolate and even certain medications. If you’re prone to exercise-induced headaches and are looking for an energy boost prior to working out, find a less-stimulating alternative such as an electrolyte beverage or piece of fruit instead of caffeine-rich products. When it comes to caffeine, moderation is key; stick within your daily recommended intake levels (400 mg or less per day) and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine just before physical activity.

Symptoms of Exercise-Induced Headaches

Exercise-induced headaches can occur in people of all ages, but they are particularly common in people who exercise vigorously and frequently. The headaches can be intense and can last up to 48 hours. Common symptoms of exercise-induced headaches include throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head, nausea, and sensitivity to light. Let’s look at some other symptoms of exercise-induced headaches.

Pain in the Neck and Head

Exercise-induced headaches usually take the form of a dull ache in the neck and head area. The intensity of the pain can range from mild to severe and may last for up to 72 hours after exercising. These nodular headaches, or cluster headaches, typically affect one side of the head alone, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and photosensitivity. Exercise-induced headaches can also affect multiple areas of your head if the area is under pressure due to physical activity, such as running or jumping. In some cases, sufferers may experience pain in their shoulder region or even down their arms.


Nausea is a possible symptom of exercise-induced headaches if not immediately after exercising, then in the period of time shortly afterwards. If you experience nausea in addition to your headache, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Because an exercise-induced headache occurs due to the blood vessels around the brain changing size and pressure, nausea may result from this action. In some cases, nausea might be accompanied by dizziness and vertigo. With any other symptoms you may have due to an exercise-induced headache, it is important that you contact your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.


Fatigue is one of the most commonly reported symptoms of an exercise-induced headache. It’s normal to feel tired after exercising, but if the fatigue is intense or lasts for longer than normal, it could indicate a headache. Exercise can trigger the release of endorphins (our body’s natural pain-relieving hormones), so sometimes fatigue and a decline in performance can be attributed to lower-than-normal levels of these hormones. Other signs of fatigue that signal an impending headache include difficulty concentrating, difficulty staying motivated to exercise, and increased irritability.

Blurred Vision

It is possible for exercise induced headaches to also cause blurred vision or changes in vision. Blurred or double vision can indicate a serious problem, so it is important to seek medical attention if you are experiencing this symptom in addition to pain.

In some cases, blurred vision may be triggered by decreased blood flow to the eyes during exercise or from hyperemia, which is the dilation of blood vessels around the brain due to increased activity.

For those who suffer from migraine headaches, both regular and exercise-induced migraine attacks may be accompanied by visual disturbances and even temporary vision loss. Although not all migraine attacks involve visual disturbances, it’s important to be aware of the possibility.

Prevention and Treatment

Headaches caused by exercise can range from mild to very severe. It is important to recognize the symptoms of a workout-induced headache and take steps to prevent them. In addition, there are effective treatments for exercise-induced headaches that can provide relief. Let’s discuss these preventative measures and treatment options in more detail.

Stay Hydrated

Staying properly hydrated is an important part of making sure your head does not hurt after physical activity. Even mild dehydration can lead to headaches, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after any physical activity. A good rule of thumb is to drink two cups of water per hour when exercising. If you plan to exercise longer or more intensely, you should consider consuming electrolyte-replenishing sports drinks or supplements. It’s also smart to avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages before and after working out, as these can further increase the risk of dehydration.

Another way to reduce the risk of post-workout headaches is to take an over-the-counter pain relief medication 30 minutes before beginning your routine. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin can be effective in preventing post-exercise headaches, but they have potential side effects so consult a doctor before taking them for this purpose.

You should be aware that headaches may also be caused by nutritional deficiencies such as magnesium, potassium and sodium levels that are too low for optimal body functioning. Various different vitamins B6, B12 and D3 are essential for proper blood flow regulation; someone with a deficiency in these would likely benefit from supplementing their diet with these compounds, particularly during intense physical activity. Additionally eating correctly balanced meals provides a proactive approach to avoiding deficiencies in essential nutrients which could result in headache symptoms occurring post workout.

Eat Before Exercise

Before starting a workout, it is important to fuel your body with the right foods. Eating something small, like a piece of fruit or a granola bar, before exercising can help avoid the drop in blood sugar that leads to headaches during and after physical activity. Additionally, maintaining hydration by drinking plenty of water both before and during exercise can help reduce the headache-triggering dehydration that can come with a workout. Make sure to focus on carbohydrates and electrolytes as these are most critical for your body when it comes to energy use.

Avoid Caffeine

One of the best ways to prevent and treat a workout generated headache is to avoid caffeine. Caffeine can cause dehydration which can be one of the main triggers of a headache. Before, during and after exercise try to stay hydrated by drinking lots of fluids. If you are used to having your morning coffee, that’s okay just be sure you have 16-20 ounces of non-caffeinated fluids 1 hour before exercise for every 8 ounces of coffee consumed. If water is not appealing, there are electrolyte sports drinks on the market that can also help replenish fluids and electrolytes lost from sweat during exercise. Additionally, it would be a good idea to limit or eliminate caffeinated products in your diet while you work out or if experiencing recurrent headaches after exercise.

Take Breaks During Exercise

When exercising, it is very important to take regular breaks to ensure that you do not put too much strain on your body. This means taking a few minutes to stand and rest between sets, or taking breaks when you are running or cycling for longer distances. Taking short breaks during a workout can help reduce the chance of dehydration, muscle fatigue and overexertion, all of which can lead to headaches. It can also help reset your mind and keep you focused on your workout routine. Lastly, taking more frequent breaks allows more time for stretching which can help reduce tension in your muscles and reduce the likelihood of exercise-related headaches.

Use Pain Relievers

For those suffering from headaches caused by an intense workout, there are over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen that can provide temporary pain relief. As with all medications, these should be taken exactly as instructed on the package and only in the recommended dosage. Make sure to read the warnings on the label and understand all potential side effects before taking any medication.

It is also important to note that while these over-the-counter pain relievers can provide temporary relief, they are intended for short-term use only and should not be used long term due to increased risk of negative side effects associated with their use. In addition, be sure to inform your healthcare provider if you are thinking of taking any medications and make sure there will not be any adverse interactions when taken with other medicines or supplements.


In conclusion, although it is possible to experience a headache after a workout, this is not necessarily the norm. In general, physical activity releases endorphins – ‘feel good’ hormones – and can reduce stress, improve mood and help provide a better quality of sleep. It is important to take into account a variety of factors when trying to determine why you have experienced a headache after exercising, as this can help prevent recurring headaches in the future.
If you experience recurrent headaches after exercise then it may be worth speaking to your doctor or another health professional for further advice on managing your symptoms. Practicing proper hydration techniques before, during and after working out can also help reduce the likelihood of experiencing post-exercise headaches.

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