Why Do I Get Sudden Headaches When Working Out?


Sudden Headaches When Working Out

Regular exercise is at the cornerstone of good health and can improve your quality of life in many different ways.

Whether you prefer to run, swim, lift weights, cycle, dance or cross-train, working out can benefit both your mental and physical health and aids in the prevention of a whole host of chronic illnesses and diseases.

Depending on the level of exertion you put into your training sessions, however, exercise can sometimes feel as though it's doing you more harm than good.

Sudden headaches when working out can be both alarming and inconvenient, and may even force you to cut your session short. But why do people get sudden headaches during exercise, and what can you do to prevent it?

What is an Exertion Headache?

Headaches that come on quickly during exercise are known as exertion headaches, and they often strike during particularly intense or lengthy periods of activity.

These are usually described as a throbbing pain that begins during or after a strenuous workout, and affects both sides of the head. For most people, the pain will subside soon after they stop exercising and take a rest, but for others, the pain can last hours or, in extreme cases, up to two days.

Although almost always harmless, exertion headaches can be inconvenient to deal with and may interfere with your fitness regime. But what are the causes of these sudden headaches, and what can you do to prevent them from slowing you down?

(Also read: How Much Exercise Should A Teenager Do Per Week?)

What Causes Sudden Headaches During Your Workout?

There are two types of exertion headaches:

Primary: Primary exertion headaches are usually harmless, and are not connected with any underlying medical conditions. These are directly linked with vigorous exercise and are thought to be caused by the dilation of blood vessels in the brain (known as venous pressure).

The symptoms usually last between five minutes and 48 hours, and can also be brought on by exercising in high temperatures, humid environments, or at high altitudes.

You can tell if your headache is a primary exertion headache if you experience:

  • Throbbing pain
  • Pain in both sides of the head
  • A headache that occurs during or after strenuous exercise

Secondary: Secondary exertion headaches are rarer and more serious, as they are usually symptomatic of an underlying medical condition. They may be caused by several different things, including a sinus infection, tumors, bleeding on the brain, or coronary artery disease.

These are more commonly seen in older people, with the average age of a person experiencing a Secondary Exertion Headache being 42 years old.

Secondary exertion headaches are characterized by:

  • Vomiting
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Loss of consciousness
  • The same headache symptoms you would experience with a Primary Exertion Headache
  • Double vision

 If you experience a secondary exertion headache, you should book an appointment with your doctor immediately to determine the cause.

(Also read: The Great Debate: How Much Running is Healthy?)

What If Your Headaches Last For Hours After You Stop Exercising?

Sudden Headaches When Working Out

Primary exertion headaches most often begin at the height of your workout and fade when you stop exercising. However, many people report headaches that come on suddenly during exercise and last for hours afterward, even after resting.

If you have a Primary Exertion Headache that just won’t go away, even hours after you stop exercising, try not to worry. They are known to last for between five minutes and 48 hours, so unless you experience any of the symptoms associated with Secondary Exertion Headaches there is no need to panic.

However, if you do experience double vision, loss of consciousness, or a stiff neck in conjunction with a headache that lasts for hours, and you are over the age of 40, you are advised to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

How Can You Treat an Exertion Headache?

The best way to treat an exertion headache is with rest. As soon as your headache begins, you should stop exercising and allow your body to return to its resting state, which should reduce dilation of the blood vessels in the brain.

To accelerate recovery, you can also:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers
  • Eat a small snack
  • Find somewhere cool and quiet to lie down

If you frequently get exertion headaches, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory and blood pressure medications, which can be taken regularly to prevent your headaches from recurring.

How Can You Prevent Headaches During Exercise?

If you regularly suffer from sudden headaches during your workout, this can start to take a toll on your productivity and performance. A strong headache can be debilitating, and can force you to stop exercising; if this happens to you often, it may even dissuade you from continuing with your fitness regime.

However, there's no reason why you should miss out on the benefits of regular exercise, and there are several steps you can take to reduce your chances of experiencing exertion headaches during your workout.

1. Eat a Balanced Diet 

headache after exercise blood pressure

Poor nutrition and low blood sugar are both contributing factors to Primary Exertion Headaches, so eating a healthy, balanced diet can help to prevent their onset in the future.

Eating a small snack before and after your workout can also help, as this can keep your blood sugar levels high enough to prevent a headache from setting in.

2. Avoid Caffeine 

headaches hours after working out

Caffeine can contribute to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain, so skipping the coffee before you begin your workout can help to prevent headaches.

3. Avoid Alcohol 

headaches hours after working out

Drinking alcohol has all sorts of unpleasant effects on the body the next day, and could also be the cause of sudden headaches during your workout

4. Consider Changing Your Workout Environment 

Exercising in hot and/or high humidity environments can bring on sudden headaches, so consider changing your workout location if this applies to you.


If you experience a sudden headache during your workout for the first time, you are advised to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any underlying medical causes.

However, most exertion headaches are harmless and are simply caused by blood vessels dilating in the brain during strenuous exercise. If this is the case, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting another one.

If you avoid caffeine, eat a balanced diet, and stay hydrated throughout your workout, there is no reason why headaches should interfere with your fitness regime or your peace of mind.