If you get a sudden headache while you are exercising, you could have a primary headache, which is usually benign. However, some headaches are secondary to medical problems, which in rare instances can indicate a serious or even life-threatening medical condition. See your medical doctor to rule out dangerous conditions if you experience an exercise headache, particularly if you have never before experienced an exercise-induced headache. If you have a sudden, severe headache with a stiff neck, decreased consciousness or visual disturbances, seek emergency medical care.
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Primary exercise headaches -- also called exertional headaches -- occur during or after sustained and vigorous exercise, such as running, tennis, basketball or lifting weights. According to the National Headache Foundation, exercise headaches can also be triggered by sexual intercourse. These headaches are thought to be caused by dilated blood vessels inside the skull. Other causes of exertional headaches include exercising in heat, humidity or at high altitudes. Throbbing, usually affecting both sides of the head, is symptomatic of an exercise-induced headache. Symptoms can range in duration from 5 minutes to 48 hours.
Secondary headaches are caused by medical problems, such as sinus infections, benign or malignant tumors, a blockage in the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, reduced blood flow in the arteries and subarachnoid hemorrhage, or bleeding between the brain and its membranous cover. The average age of a person experiencing a secondary headache is 42. Secondary headache symptoms include throbbing pain, vomiting, loss of consciousness, a stiff neck and double vision that lasts for at least a day, and can persist for several days. Other causes of secondary headache include migraine, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and anabolic steroid use.
When to Seek Emergency Medical Care
Cerebral aneurysms -- one of the causes of subarachnoid hemorrhages -- can be life-threatening emergencies. Causes of subarachnoid hemorrhage include head injury, a bleeding disorder, the use of blood thinners or malformed arteries leading to or within the brain. According to Medline Plus, the main symptom of a subarachnoid hemorrhage is a severe headache with sudden onset. Pain is often worse near the back of the skull, and may begin with a sudden snapping or popping sensation in the head. Other symptoms include decreased consciousness, confusion, neck and shoulder aches, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, seizure, double vision or blind spots. Pupils may appear to be of different sizes, and eyelids may droop. Seek emergency medical attention at once if you have symptoms of a subarachnoid hemorrhage.
Treatment of Secondary Headaches
Secondary headaches due to migraines can be treated like any other migraine heacache, with over-the-counter or prescription medications. Antibiotics are generally prescribed for headaches caused by sinusitis. But if the headache is due to a subarachnoid hemorrhage, the situation is much more drastic and may call for aggressive medical treatment. According to Medline Plus, doctors may need to use life support measures, place a draining tube in the brain, or perform surgery to repair the cause of the bleeding. Blood pressure control and prevention of seizures are primary concerns during this medical emergency.
Treatment of Primary Exercise Headaches
To treat a benign primary exercise headache, your doctor may prescribe blood pressure medications or indomethacin, an anti-inflammatory drug. He may advise you to take over-the-counter medications for pain, warm up before working out and avoid exercising in heat and high humidity. If you frequently experience exercise headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication to be taken before exercise to prevent the occurrence of headaches. Consult your doctor for tips and techniques to help ward off primary headaches.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.