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Exercise Can Be a Pain in the -- Head

Body Gain But Head Pain

Heart of Matter

Headaches that begin during exercise and then go away might also point to heart disease, a group of New York researchers reported in a 1997 issue of Neurology. Led by Richard Lipton, MD, of the Headache Unit at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, researchers found that in a small group of patients, headaches that began during exercise were the only symptom of heart disease. The headaches disappeared after the patient was treated with drugs, surgery, or a combination of the two.

The report said that although this condition seems to be rare, many doctors -- as well as the general public -- are unaware of the possible link, and therefore may not check for heart disease. "Cardiac headache" should be investigated, reported Lipton, in people whose headaches began after the age of 50 and in those who have risk factors for heart disease, like hypertension, diabetes, smoking, or a family history of heart disease.

Sports Get to Your Head

Once serious conditions are ruled out, your doctor will likely say you have a benign -- meaning not dangerous -- condition frequently called "weightlifter's headache." "These kinds of headaches come on with a bang," Newman says.

"Many people get them every time they exercise and they're characterized by the sudden onset of throbbing pain. Nausea is also a common symptom, although vomiting usually isn't." These benign headaches usually disappear within 30 minutes of stopping the exercise, says Newman.

Other exercise-induced headaches, says Newman, include "swimmer's headache," which many people get from jumping into cold water, and "swim-goggle headaches," caused by goggles that are too tight. Stopping the pain is "very easy," Newman laughs. "Just take the goggles off. You'd be surprised, though, how many people don't think of that." "Footballer's headache," traditionally seen more in England and Europe, will likely be on the rise in the States, says Newman, as soccer becomes increasingly popular.

If you're prone to headaches while exercising, your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication such as indomethacin (sold under many brand names), which is used primarily to combat arthritis. Indomethacin, which can be taken either before or during exercise, works on the blood vessels in the body, says Newman, and is thought to also act on nitric oxide -- one of the chemicals that can cause headaches.

Migraine sufferers don't have to give up exercising, Newman says. Just start slowly, he advises, and don't overindulge. "Ten minutes at a time should do it when you're starting out. Increase your time gradually and you should be fine."

Originally published May 1, 2000.

Medically updated Jan. 12, 2005.

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Reviewed on January 12, 2005

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