Running with a headache

Exercise Can Help You Beat Headaches

You may think exercise and headaches don’t mix, but Nabih Ramadan, MD, a neurologist at the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, and chair of the National Headache Foundation (NHF) Education and Biomedical Research Committee, says that’s a myth.

While exercise may trigger headaches, often known as exertional headaches, in a small minority of patients, most people with chronic migraines can actually ease the pain and frequency of their headaches by keeping fit, notes Dr. Ramadan. “People with exercise-induced headaches have a very rare condition, and using that to tell headache patients not to exercise is a myth we don’t want to propagate.”

Exercise Tips for People Who Have Headaches

Here are a few exercise tips for people with chronic headaches:

  • Exercise regularly. Go for a regular workout (aerobic exercise such as jogging, bicycling, or rowing) at least three times a week. Maintain a constant heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute for at least 10 to 15 minutes during each session.
  • Work out in the morning. Exercise in the morning, not the evening, so you can wind down during the hours before bed. “Otherwise, you could cause changes in your sleeping habits which could induce headaches,” Ramadan says.
  • Avoid high-impact exercise during a headache. When you do have a headache, avoid jarring, high-impact exercise like running or kickboxing because it’s likely to aggravate the pain. Intense exercise will also cause you to sweat, leading to dehydration, which can worsen a headache as well, Ramadan says.

Exercise Helps Most Headache Patients

While there is little evidence that exercise has a direct beneficial effect on headaches, there’s ample data on indirect benefits of exercise, such as decreased headache frequency. This makes sense because healthy habits like exercise reduce stress and improve cardiovascular fitness, Ramadan says.

Ramadan suggests the following healthy habits to help alleviate headaches:

  • Regular exercise. Migraine patients are at a slightly increased risk of stroke, and lack of exercise is a risk factor for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, Ramadan says. But vigorous, regular exercise can help you reduce these risks.
  • Adequate sleep. Getting enough sleep on a regular basis is part of the “migraine hygiene” you should practice to keep your headaches at bay, Ramadan says. That’s in part because regular sleep tends to lower stress levels.
  • Balanced diet. Eating regular meals, avoiding foods that trigger headaches, and staying hydrated will also help reduce the pain and frequency of your headaches.
  • Dietary restraint. “Overall, part of migraine hygiene is avoiding excess of any type in the diet,” Ramadan says.

Exercise and Headache: More Data Needed

A study that reviewed much of the existing data on exercise and migraine headaches concluded that more research should be done on the subject. One such study, based on surveys from over 69,000 people in Norway, recently found that sedentary adults had a higher risk of headaches than their more active counterparts. Likewise, the researchers noted that study participants who reported more frequent headaches were the least likely to be physically active.

Though more research is certainly needed, for now it is safe to say that unless you suffer from exertional headaches, staying fit with regular exercise may help you manage your headaches.

While chronic headaches shouldn’t keep you from being physically active, if you do experience an intense headache after exercising, be sure to tell your doctor.

Fortunately, we can take simple steps to limit these factors’ effects on our nervous system and prevent headaches from interfering with our goals.

Ease Into Physical Activity

“Often women are trying to make the most of their time, so they just walk out the door and start running,” Dougherty says. “But individuals who are prone to migraines are sensitive to changes in their body’s environment, including increases in heart rate, body temperature and/or blood pressure.”

According to Dougherty, one of the best things headache sufferers (migraines or otherwise) can do to reduce the onset of symptoms is to ease into physical activity. Taking the time for a deliberate warm-up (of 10 to 15 minutes, or more if the workout will be particularly intense or long) gives the nervous system a chance to adjust to a state of exertion.

Prioritize Nutrition

Low blood sugar can contribute to the onset of a headache, so aim to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day to avoid fluctuations in blood sugar levels, suggests Dougherty. Try having a small meal one to two hours before running and a snack within 20 minutes of finishing your run.

Electrolyte imbalances can also upset your nervous system, so if you’re running for longer than an hour and especially in hot weather, consider taking an electrolyte supplement.

Practice Good Alignment

A prolonged forward head position activates the posterior neck muscles, which can aggravate nerves that then transmit pain to the neck and head. Add to this the repetitive pounding of running, and you’ve got a headache in the making.

Pay attention to head and neck alignment throughout your daily routine. If you have a desk job, make sure to set up an ergonomic workstation, take frequent breaks and look up from your computer.

See A Physician

“If you experience severe headaches that are exclusively triggered by exercise, you may be experiencing primary exercise headache, and this warrants further evaluation by a neurologist,” says Dougherty. “Primary exercise headache can be just that—a headache triggered by exercise, but rarely it can be due to a secondary cause like an abnormality of the brain or blood vessels.”

Dougherty also recommends seeing a neurologist if you’re experiencing headaches on a weekly basis or if your symptoms include numbness or weakness.

If your symptoms seem to be related to head position, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to work on correcting your alignment and reducing tension.

Chest Down, Head Up

Runners who mistakenly elevate their chest are more prone to a forward head and shoulder posture, as a runner must then bring her head down and forward in order to view her surroundings, says physical therapist Biana Smolich of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “Faulty forward head and shoulder posture creates tension in muscles around the neck with referral of pain to different areas around the cranium, manifesting as headache pain,” Smolich says.

Practice the following alignment cues from Smolich while running to help keep your head in good alignment.

First, Correct An Elevated Chest

Relax your belly so your rib cage can come down and sit on your belly. Your ribs should be positioned directly over your hips and not jutting out in front of you. Maintain this rib cage position while bringing your shoulders into a better position so that your shoulder girdle sits upon your rib cage.

Then, Correct Forward Head Position

Elongate the back of your neck (like a turtle drawing into his shell) while simultaneously tucking (retracting) your chin back.

Related:

This Could Be The Reason You Are Getting Headaches

Advice For Runners Who Suffer From Migraines

How To Prevent Agonizing Post-Run Headaches

If you’ve just started running (or been a runner for a quite a while) and noticed that you get a terrible headache either during or after your runs, then this post is for you.

Getting a headache from running can be a real buzz kill. But here’s the truth. Exercise-induced headaches are common, especially when training in hot weather.

Keep on reading to learn how to prevent and treat exercise-induced migraines.

Running Induced Headaches Demystified

If you’re suffering from migraines when you want to be focusing on logging in the miles, there are a few things you need to know—and can do right away—to relieve yourself from the suffering.

The following measures are you need to make the most out of your runs without being sidelined by head pain.

Note. I’d like to set the record straight that I’m not a certified health professional. The tips and guidelines shared within this post are the results of my research and experience. It’s not medical advice. Consult with your doctor before you apply any of the advice shared here. While most exercise-induced migraines can be easily treated and prevented, it’s vital for you to be examined by a certified health care professional to rule out any serious underlying issues.

The Process

First things first, let’s define exercise-induced headaches.

Most people experience headaches while running or engaging in strenuous exercises such as tennis, rowing, weightlifting, swimming, etc.

According to my research, health professionals divide exercise headaches into two distinct categories: primary and secondary.

Primary exercise headaches, the most common type, are usually harmless. In general, these are not linked to any underlying issues and can often be easily treated with rest and/or medication.

Common symptoms of the first category include:

  • Burning pain in one or both sides of the head
  • They begin during and right after a hard workout
  • Symptoms persevering for more than 24 hours or lasting up to several consecutive days.

Secondary exercise headaches is what you should be wary of. Often caused by a potentially fatal underlying issue or dysfunction with the brain, such as a tumor or bleeding, or outside the brain, such as heart disease.

Although the symptoms of the secondary exercise headache are almost identical to those of primary exercise headache, they’re often more severe.

Main symptoms include:

  • Similar symptoms as a primary category but more intense can last up to several consecutive days.
  • Vomiting
  • Neck rigidity
  • Double vision
  • Loss of consciousness

If you’re suffering from any of the above symptoms, call your doctor immediately, especially if you begin to experience them without any history. Think of the second category as the worst headache of your life.

How to Prevent Running Induced Headaches

What follows are some of my best advice on how to prevent experiencing headaches while running and exercising.

Enjoy

Protect Yourself From the Sun

Preventing headaches when running can be as simple as protecting yourself from the harmful rays. In fact, research show that up to 60 percent of headaches are triggered by bright light or glare.

Therefore, this could very well be the cause of your headaches if you usually get headaches when running during the summer when the sun is blazing over you.

To protect your eyes from the sunlight, you may consider wearing polarized sunglasses. These can offer additional protection against glare-causing reflections from concrete, sidewalks, sand, water, and everything else in between. Prosthetic contact lenses are another option.

I’d also encourage you to wear a hat or a visor with a wide brim when running during daylight. Also, to run in the shade as often as possible.

Warm up

According to my research, insufficient blood flow can contribute to exercise-induced headaches is due to blood flow.

Running—and other forms of exercise—dilates blood vessels and this generates enough pressure that may cause migraines in some individuals.

Luckily, a simple warm-up routine may help you sidestep this issue.

The right warm-up sets the tone for the rest of the workout. It raises body temperature and allows the heart and blood vessels to dilate properly.

That’s why one of the best things you can do to reduce the onset of running migraines is to ease into your workouts.

Start yours runs by jogging slowly for 5 to 10 minutes, then, if time allows it (especially if you’re doing any interval running), perform a set of running-specific and dynamic exercises to help fire off your body on all cylinders.

Here are two of my favorite warm-up routines.

Post 1

Post 2

Drink Your Water

Our bodies begin to enter a dehydrated state when we start running low on water. Primary warning signs of the condition (which can be at times life-threatening) include tiredness, drop in urine production, excessive thirst, and most importantly, a throbbing headache.

How’s that even possible?

The lack of fluids in your body may reduce the pressure inside your arteries, which can hinder how much blood reaches the lining around your brain, triggering a headache as a result.

Stay well hydrated before, during, and after your runs. Anytime you exercise, aim to drink enough water to stay well hydrated.

In general, drink at least four to six ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes during your run.

How much water you should drink to stay well hydrated depends on many factors, such as training intensity, temperature, clothes worn, and fitness level, but all in all, your urine should be clear or almost transparent when you’re correctly hydrated.

Running for more than 90 minutes? Alternate between plain water and a sports drink, so you’re replenishing the electrolytes lost through sweat.

Here’s your complete guide to hydration while running.

Electrolyte Imbalances

Electrolytes are a set of nutrients—or chemicals—present in your body that plays specific roles, such as regulating the heart rate, allowing for muscle contractions, etc.

An imbalance of electrolytes, which can quickly occur when training in hot weather, can throw you off your running game and result in awful migraines, especially post-exercise.

In most cases, electrolytes imbalances can be blamed on a deficient diet that’s high in processed foods. Often, heavily processed foods score high on sodium but are very low in other vital electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium—thus setting the stage for an imbalance.

The good news is, upping your electrolyte intake before, during, or after a workout may alleviate and relieve these headaches.

How do you get your electrolytes then?

Eat plenty of whole and unpackaged foods. Have plenty of vegetables and fruits rich in magnesium and potassium. Best options include broccoli, sweet potatoes, bananas, squash, cabbage, avocados, and leafy greens.

You can also add an electrolyte supplement before, during or after your workout to alleviate these migraines.

Manage Hypoglycemia

In general, exercising on an empty stomach forces blood sugar levels to drop.

When your blood sugar drops too low, you’ll start to experience the symptoms of hypoglycemia. These include irritability, sweating, tingling around the mouth, fatigue, and more importantly, a throbbing headache.

To regulate your blood sugar levels, eat a well-balanced diet, including plenty of sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Have a balanced meal or snack with a little carbohydrate, protein and fat three to four hours before a run.

My favorite options include half a bagel with peanut butter, a fruit and nut bard, etc.

Practice Good Form

Lousy form while running can result in muscle tension in the shoulders and neck, which, in turn, may trigger migraines.

For instance, an excessive forward head position may irritate the posterior neck muscles, which, in turn, can damage nerves that then diffuses the pain to the neck and head.

Here’s how to fix this problem. Start by ensuring proper alignment throughout your body. Pay attention to your head position and neck alignment throughout your workouts.

Opt for a neutral position.

Keep your head held straightforward. Your neck should be in line with the spine—avoid bending it downward or extending it backward. This neutral position is what will protect your upper spine and neck from damage and injury and irritation.

Opt for the right forward head position. Make sure to elongate your neck—think a turtle is drawing into its shell while tucking your chin back at the same time.

You can also work on building strength and mobility of specific postural muscles—like the upper back, shoulders, and neck. This can help relieve tension below your neck that could contribute to the onset of head pain while running.

Take Anti-inflammatory Pills

Although it’s not always the best course of action, medicating before a run can help in preventing and managing headaches—especially during stressful times of your life when migraines are most common.

To err on the side of caution, get the green light from your doctor before you take drugs.

In case the over-the-counter meds don’t improve your symptoms, talk to a certified healthcare professional. They might recommend a prescription headache medication that you can take before running to prevent migraines.

According to my research, trying prescription NSAIDS from a certified physician, such as ergotamine tartrate and indomethacin works very well.

Remember that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs block certain chemicals in the body that can cause pain and inflammation. That, in turn, provides quick pain relief. But it’s by no means a permanent solution.

Stretch It

Your exercise migraines could very well stem from tightness in the muscles of the shoulders and neck. What makes this worse is that, often than not, most runners do not usually focus on stretching these areas during post-run stretches.

It’s quite simple. Invest enough time after your workout to stretch out the upper back, shoulders, and neck.

Try this yoga routine for extra relief.

Here’s one powerful YouTube tutorial that shows you exactly the kind of stretches you need to help relieve and prevent migraines.

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Conclusion

Although most running migraines are benign, at times the condition may indicate a sign of a serious underlying medical problem.

That’s why in case the above didn’t help, or you’re experiencing secondary exercise headache symptoms; you need to your doctor about it as soon as possible.

Please feel free to leave your comments and question in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.

Keep Running Strong

David D.

Lifting weights can also lead to “weightlifter’s headache,” she says.

Other triggers for an exercise-induced headache include:

  • Dehydration
  • Change of altitude
  • History of migraines
  • Hot, humid weather

Q: How can you avoid exercise-induced headaches?

A: First, do whatever you can to prevent a headache, starting with hydration.

“People like to work out in the morning and often don’t eat or drink beforehand,” Dr. Mays says. Instead, it’s a good idea to drink water before and during your workouts.

You can take action to counteract other headache triggers as well:

  • If bright sunlight or hot, humid conditions cause headaches, wear sunglasses and lightweight clothes that wick moisture away from your body. Or exercise when temperatures are cooler.
  • If certain exercises seem to cause headaches, consider mixing up your workout routine. Dr. Mays often recommends including yoga and Pilates in the mix.

Q: How can you treat these headaches?

A: For some, an occasional workout leads to a brief headache and it doesn’t really impact daily activities. Others, however, get a headache every time they exercise and it may linger all day — and even into the next day.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can help ease your occasional headache pain. But these drugs are only intended for short-term use.

Overuse can actually make your headache worse and cause you to “rebound” into another headache, Dr. Mays says.

If you have chronic headaches but want to maintain a near-daily exercise regimen, a doctor can prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug that you can take daily (indomethacin, for instance), she says.

Q: When is a headache cause for concern?

A: In general, it’s a good idea for anyone who has exercise-induced headaches to consult a doctor, Dr. Mays says. The doctor may help by recommending preventive measures and medications to ease the pain.

For instance, if your headache is more one-sided and located in the neck (a cervicogenic headache), a physical therapist or personal trainer often can help alleviate the pain, she says.

More specifically, “if you are over the age of 40 and start getting headaches, see a doctor,” Dr. Mays says.

Other red flags that should prompt you to seek medical attention include:

  • A severe, sudden-onset headache, commonly known as a “thunderclap” headache
  • A headache accompanied by sleepiness, confusion or fainting
  • A headache that lasts more than two days

We all know that we need to exercise regularly to stay healthy, so don’t let headaches stand in the way. Take steps to prevent an exercise-induced headache and talk to your doctor if you see any signs of a more serious problem.

Exercise Tips for Migraines and Headaches

Do Yoga, Walk, or Swim to Ease Migraine and Headache Symptoms

Although exercise can trigger migraines and/or headaches in some people, a regular exercise routine can actually help reduce the overall number of migraines and/or headaches you experience, as well as the frequency of your symptoms.

As part of a comprehensive treatment plan for migraines and headaches, exercise can help you manage migraines and headaches safely and effectively. But what exercises are most beneficial for dealing with migraines and headaches? This article highlights the benefits of exercise as well as exercise tips for managing migraines and headaches.

More In-depth Migraine and Headache Treatment Articles

  • Medications
  • Preventive Medications: Stopping Migraines Before They Start
  • Alternative Treatments for Headaches and Migraines

How Often Should You Exercise with Migraines and/or Headaches?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (eg, walking) and 2 or more days a week of muscle-strengthening exercises (eg, light weight lifting) each week.1 But it’s important to work in flexibility exercises, such as yoga, into your routine, too.

While the CDC’s exercise recommendation is good goal to set, you should listen to your body. If you can’t exercise for 150 minutes every week, that’s okay: You know your body best.

And because sometimes exercise can actually trigger a migraine or headache, look out for the warning signs of migraines and headaches when you’re working out. If you start to feel a migraine or headache come on, stop exercising.

As always, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, and if you experience new pain or more intense migraines and/or headaches during or after exercise, call your doctor right away.

Exercise Benefits for Migraines and Headaches
Below are some of the benefits of exercise for migraines and headaches. Exercise can:

  • boost your mood and feeling of well—being
  • decrease your sensitivity to pain because exercise releases endorphins-the
  • feel-food hormones
  • made in the brain
  • promote a healthy sleep pattern (helps you fall asleep and stay asleep), which also lowers stress levels
  • reduce the severity of migraine and headache symptoms as well as the frequency of attacks

Exercises to Do for Migraines and Headaches
Here are some exercise ideas that can help you manage migraines and headaches.

  • Biking, swimming, and walking are great ways to fit in aerobic exercise and help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and headaches.
  • Meditation exercises, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques can ease your mind-and your pain-by helping you focus on the present moment as well as helping you foster a positive attitude.
  • Yoga poses and other types of stretching can help reduce muscle tightness and tension in the head, neck, and shoulders. This is important because when these muscles are tight, and it can make migraine and headache symptoms worse. Yoga helps loosens these muscles as well as helps you reduce stress.

Exercise Tips for Migraines and Headaches
To help manage migraines and headaches, you can also integrate the tips below into your overall exercise plan.

Have a healthy posture: Poor posture can put extra stress on head, neck, and shoulder muscles, which can lead to a migraine or tension headache. Maintaining a healthy posture—including when you work out—can reduce the frequency of migraines and headaches. Your shoulders should be back, ears should be in line with your shoulders, and the top of your head (called the “crown”) should be pointing toward the ceiling.

Limit high-impact exercise: When you have migraines and/or headaches, intense exercise, such as running, can aggravate head pain and other symptoms.

Make a date with yourself: Be sure to pencil in your workout sessions so you don’t forget. Doing this helps you stay committed and focused on your exercise goals.

Warm-up and cool down: Warm-up exercises prepare your body for physical activity, while stretching after exercise signals your body to cool down. For every workout, aim to warm-up for 10 minutes and cool down for 10 minutes.

Researchers know that regular exercise can reduce your need for migraine and headache medications, but they’re still exploring the full benefits of exercise for migraines and headaches.2,3

Because exercise is such an important part of living a full, healthy life with migraines and/or headaches, talk to your doctor about beginning an exercise plan that can help you manage migraine- and headache related- pain.

Updated on: 11/19/15 View Sources

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