Exertion Headache

Exertion headache is also called activity-related headache. They share symptoms with migraine triggered by physical activity and cough headache. Cough headache are more common than exertion headache.

Exertion headache usually strike in younger people, from adolescence through age 50. This type of headache usually occurs with lengthy exercise sessions. The headache usually pops up at the height of exercise and the pain typically fades when the exercise stops. However, in certain cases the exertion headache can last up to two days. Exertion headache can also have symptoms similar to migraine, such as nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and sensitivity to sound.

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What causes exertion headache?

Increased blood pressure in the blood vessels of the brain, which is called venous pressure. Primary exertion headache are harmless. However, any underlying cause of the headache must be ruled out first to ensure a more serious condition isn’t causing the pain. The International Headache Society requires that possible more serious problems are ruled out before diagnosing harmless primary exertion headache. See your doctor if you suffer from exertion headache so that all other possible conditions can be ruled out.

Many times, with more serious disorders, the head pain is made worse by exercise but if the headache is actually caused by the exercise it is more likely to be a harmless exertion headache.

A women getting an exertion headache after lifting weights
Exertion headache is triggered by exertion or physical activities such as:

  • Weight lifting
  • Playing tennis
  • Running, particularly long distances
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Scuba diving
  • Sexual activity

Other factors that contribute to exertion headache include:

People who suffer from exertion headache often suffer from migraine or have a family history of migraine.

Diagnosing exertion headache

The International Headache Society defines Exertion headache as:

  1. A pulsating or throbbing headache with the characteristics listed in B and C
  2. Head pain lasts five minutes to 48 hours
  3. Headache is brought on by and only happens during or after physical exertion
  4. Headache is not caused by another disorder

When exertion headache first appears, a doctor must first run tests to ensure the pain isn’t caused by the very serious conditions: subarachnoid hemorrhage and arterial dissection.

Community experiences

Migraine.com advocates frequently write about their varying migraine triggers including exercise. Often, people living with migraine can be on the receiving end of unsolicited advice such as “You should exercise more!” There’s much discussion over whether or not exercise helps or hinders those with migraine. In the 2018 Migraine In America survey, respondents were asked “What else, if anything, do you use on a regular basis to treat migraine and/or its symptoms?” Out of the 4,356 respondents, 8 out of 10 reported using alternative therapies, including forms of exercise, as part of their migraine treatment.

Migraine.com advocates also share tips on how to get moving again after being sidelined by migraine. In this video, one advocate discusses ways to recap the preventative benefits of regular exercise without triggering or worsening a migraine attack.

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Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010
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