Exertion Headaches

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

Exertion headaches 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 headaches can last up to two days. Exertion headaches can also have symptoms similar to migraines, such as nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and sensitivity to sound.

What causes Exertion Headaches

Increased blood pressure in the blood vessels of the brain, which is called venous pressure. Primary exertion headaches are harmless. However, any underlying cause of the headaches 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 headaches 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.

Exertion headaches are 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 headaches include:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Heat
  • High humidity
  • Change in the barometric pressure
  • Exercise at high altitudes
  • Caffeine
  • Low blood sugar

People who suffer from exertion headaches often suffer from migraines or have a family history of migraines.

Diagnosing Exertion Headaches

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.


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