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What are Exertion Headaches?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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An exertion headache is a headache directly linked to physical exertion like straining to lift something heavy, working out, or working hard outdoors. After the activity is over, the patient can experience head pain for several seconds or minutes before it resolves. Exertion headaches are treatable and patients should see a neurologist if they start developing unusual numbers of headaches, or headaches at odd times. It helps to keep a log of when headaches occur and what the patient was doing shortly before onset, as this can be used in diagnostic evaluations.

When people physically exert themselves, and especially when they strain muscles in the torso, the blood vessels tend to expand as the body adjusts to provide people with energy. The cause of exertion headaches is believed to be pressure on the nerves in the brain caused by the dilated blood vessels, although there may be other contributing factors involved in the development of such headaches.

Patients with suspected exertion headaches will be evaluated with the use of medical imaging to check for issues like tumors, venous malformations, cysts, and other problems that might be contributing to the development of headaches. If the scans of the brain appear to be clean and the patient can clearly document that the headaches are linked with physical activity, a neurologist can diagnose exertion headaches and discuss options for management and treatment with the patient.

Medications, particularly anti-inflammatory drugs, can be helpful in the treatment of exertion headache. The doctor may recommend several different drugs before a treatment regimen that works is developed. Patients should take note of any side effects they experience. Lifestyle adjustments such as changing a workout routine, getting coaching to learn how to work out with less physical strain, and wearing support garments during physical activity may also be recommended. These small changes to a patient's habits and routine can help the patient avoid the development of exertion headaches in the future.

If a patient's exertion headache problem does not respond to treatment, more testing may be requested. Sometimes physical changes to the brain do not immediately show up and may appear on later scans, or a patient has another medical issue that was not uncovered during the initial diagnostic evaluation. Generally, headaches are not normal and they are a cause for concern, making it important to find out why people are experiencing headaches and to address the cause.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Aug 07, 2013

@anamur-- Do you have to take time off when this happens? I have to avoid exercising for a few days when I get an exertion headache.

By serenesurface — On Aug 06, 2013

@burcinc-- This has happened to me a few times too, while lifting weights at the gym. I think that I actually pull a muscle in my neck that leads to the headache. If yours just lasted a day, you're lucky because I've had exertion headaches that have lasted up to three days.

I agree with you, it's very painful in the first few minutes and then it turns into a dull ache like a tension headache that lasts for days. It's more annoying and frustrating than painful.

By burcinc — On Aug 06, 2013

I got an exertion headache a few days ago and it was by far, the worst headache I've ever experienced.

I was lifting something heavy and I suddenly felt a very sharp pain in my head. It was excruciating! The sharp pain then turned into a severe migraine headache that lasted the rest of the day! I had to take pain relievers and sleep.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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